"30 For we know him who said, “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” and again, “The Lord will judge his people.” 31 It is a dreadful thing( to fall into the hands of the living God." -- Hebrews 10:30-31
The day before, following hours and hours of selecting a jury, Gorecke pleaded guilty to manslaughter, criminal use of a prohibited weapon, and three misdemeanors. Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Holly Meyer and Prosecuting Attorney Don McSpadden sought and gained our consent to accept the plea after the 12 jurors and 2 alternates were selected.
It was an extremely difficult pill to swallow to accept the plea to manslaughter, because we believed and still believe Gorecke was guilty of the original charge of 2nd degree murder. But a conviction on that charge seemed most unlikely once we saw the composition of the empaneled jury.
The entire selection process was difficult to watch. This was Cleburne County, Arkansas, a place we had lived and our girls had spent a large part of their lives. When we left six years ago, I still viewed it as a great place to live, a place where citizens believed in law, order, and justice for those who commit crimes.
The Sheriff's Department and the Prosecuting Attorney's office met or exceeded my expectations. But the citizens that were called to be interviewed from the jury pool were a huge disappointment. Old, young, and middle-aged, male and female, the vast majority seemed weak, indecisive, uncertain, and uncommitted to principles of honor and character I previously believed inherent in the vast majority of the county's population.
Men and women, young and old and in-between, decried the injustice of sending anyone to prison on charges involving marijuana. Neither age nor gender appeared to influence most prospective jurors to demand accountability for individual actions. One man who appeared to be in his 60s said numerous times, "I'm not sure I could send anybody to prison." Another middle-aged woman looked at Amanda's killer and explained her inability to sentence him to prison with the words, "He's just so young. I don't believe I could ruin his life."
These two were perhaps the most extreme cases that shattered my expectations, but several others admitted they would not be able to sentence someone to do time for possession of marijuana, even if it was a contributing factor to a murder because the marijuana possession is a "nonviolent crime."
It was pathetic to watch as so many of the potential jurors in my daughter's murder case seemed to place no value on personal responsibility and accountability for one's actions. When it was over, and the twelve jurors and two alternates had been selected, Meyer told me, "We didn't have one strong male to choose from, and every strong female was struck."
It appeared we had a jury that would sympathize more for the murderer, Cody Gorecke, than for the victim, Amanda Allison. And several others who were struck would have made much worse jurors than these.
There were some whom I would have loved to be on the jury, whom I'm certain were struck by the defense attorney, John Russo, but they were very few. One lady told the attorneys during questioning that she believed the justice system had been too easy on her father-in-law, releasing him at least three times after serving far too little of his sentence. According to her, the lack of severity in his punishment encouraged him to continue breaking the law. Another woman who admitted being a friend of one of the deputies, said she leaned "far the other way" on her ideas regarding punishment for marijuana possession, referring to the several who had admitted they didn't believe it a crime to be punished.
Still, the vast majority of the jury pool, at least those pulled to be interviewed, was made up of a weak sort of people who most likely would have viewed the murderer Gorecke as much a victim as my daughter Amanda.
That's why we agreed to the plea to the manslaughter charge. Meyer told us they were very worried this jury could come back with a negligent homicide conviction, a misdemeanor. McSpadden said if that happened, Gorecke would walk out of the courtroom a free man. We couldn't take that chance. At least with a plea, we had a chance the judge would give him the maximum punishment.
By this time it was nearly 5:00 pm and Judge Kemp ordered the court to recess and return the next day for the sentencing hearing.
"Simply let your 'Yes' be 'Yes,' and your 'No,' 'No'; anything beyond this comes from the evil one." -- Matthew 5:37
Now it was time to testify. Meyer asked us to give her a list of all who wanted to speak at Gorecke's sentencing. The hearing began with the prosecution presenting its case, followed by the defense presenting its side after lunch.
At the close of the previous day, Meyer told the judge she expected 2 hours of testimony for our side. Russo predicted his side would need an hour and a half. Both went well beyond that.
The prosecutor began by calling Detective Phil Burnham, lead detective on the case with the Cleburne County Sheriff's office, to the stand to explain the facts of the case as revealed by the investigation. Burnham ended up on the stand for more than 2 hours as Gorecke's attorney tried everything he could to keep his client from paying for the murder of Amanda.
Russo's line of questioning indicated he was hoping Detective Burnham would convince the judge that the sawed-off shotgun Gorecke used to kill our daughter was practically capable of firing itself because of a loose firing pin. He rotated the weapon in his hand to demonstrate the movement of the pin, insinuating said movement could cause the pin to strike the primer and discharge the round.
This was essentially the substance of his argument that Amanda's death was an accident. The defense argued that poor, innocent Cody Gorecke was only showing his new gun to his friends, casually playing with one of the hammers (not the one on the barrel that held the round that killed Amanda) when it "accidentally" fired. Perhaps the most incredulous part of the argument was his claim that the recoil from the first "accidental" firing of (what he claimed to be the first shot) combined with the play in the firing pin to "inadvertently" discharge the other round that killed my daughter.
Anyone with any knowledge of firearms and how they function could recognize the utter senselessness in this argument. The weapon was old, and it did not function correctly. The triggers didn't function at all and the hammers would not lock back in the cocked position. The only way to fire the weapon was to pull the hammers back and turn them loose.
Two rounds were fired that night. One round of birdshot fired into a wall in a bedroom of the house. The other was the slug that took Amanda's life. Cody Gorecke had to have pulled the hammers back on each of the barrels that contained those shells. Neither would have discharged unless their respective hammers were intentionally pulled back. Whether or not loosing either one or both was intentional makes no difference. This could not be categorized as an accident.
Cody Gorecke had to make a series of conscious choices that night, choices that led to the end of Amanda's life. He chose to invite others to a party at his home. He chose to get drunk and high that night. He chose to bring that gun out at the party. He chose to pull the hammers back and he chose to point that weapon at my daughter. Whether or not he intended to kill her when he made each of these choices makes no difference, he is responsible for the consequences that followed.
Some might think, "Well, he was drunk or stoned. He may not have recognized the danger." Here's the problem...intoxication or being under the influence of drugs is no defense under the law. Meyer did an excellent job of explaining why it can't be if we hope to have a functional legal system. To potential jurors she said, "If I get angry at my husband and decide to kill him, I could just go get drunk then shoot him. If intoxication were a defense, I could simply say I was drunk and get off." Therefore, Gorecke's inebriated state (which he denies by the way) could not absolve him from the consequences of his actions.
After Meyer finished with Detective Burnham on the stand, it was our turn to testify. Janice, my mother, my stepmother, and I all took the stand to answer Meyer's questions and describe the impact on our family for the court. After we finished, the court recessed for lunch before the defense presented its arguments to the judge.
Nobody who was there that night took the stand, not for the prosecution and not for the defense. Russo presented character witnesses for Gorecke, and Meyer relentlessly pressed most of them on cross examination. At times I actually felt sympathy for them as she challenged their descriptions of the man who murdered my daughter as a "gentle" man, as a "good" boy, as someone who always wanted to be held accountable for his actions. But she had done her homework, and each of her challenges was based on what she knew of Gorecke's past.
Her strategy and justification for those tactics became clear after Gorecke took the stand, especially once she began to cross examine him. In an interview with the state psychiatrist, Amanda's murderer had made many claims that undermined the testimony of most of his own character witnesses. By the time she finished with him, it would have been difficult for anyone to lend them the slightest bit of credibility. But the most damning part of Gorecke was the way Meyer destroyed HIS credibility.
It had been obvious from day one that this murderer had been coached to appear contrite, confused, and harmless by his attorneys. As the jury was selected and throughout the sentencing hearing, his frown and sad eyes communicated remorse and disbelief as the prosecutor presented the case and witnesses for Amanda's side gave their statements. Even when he first walked into the courtroom I thought he was another attorney. He wasn't even recognizable from the photos I'd seen prior. His clean white shirt and fresh clean shave with a neat trim gave more of a choir boy look than that of someone who'd spent the past 19 months in the county jail. But Meyer would shatter that image before all was said and done too.
Gorecke's lowest moment came when Meyer asked him to show the court how he was holding the weapon when Amanda was killed, to demonstrate how he was playing with the hammer the way he claimed when the gun "accidentally" discharged. Russo objected vehemently and approached the bench while Gorecke backed up and his contrite demeanor was instantly replaced with one of utter fear. Meyer held her ground in front of the witness stand and made her arguments with the weapon in her hand, refusing to retreat from in front of the murderer. She countered Russo's arguments without moving an inch, allowing the entire court to hear and understand what was going on.
First the defense attorney argued Gorecke had a right to not incriminate himself. Meyer countered that once he took the stand and swore to answer truthfully, he abdicated his 5th Amendment rights. Then Russo's most absurd argument of the entire proceeding came when he declared his client's 8th Amendment right. He claimed putting the murder weapon "in that boy's hand" was cruel and unusual punishment. This brought a sneer from Meyer and obviously didn't sway Judge Kemp either, because he sent Russo back to the defense table and told Meyer to proceed.
Gorecke had claimed to be holding a beer in one hand, the gun in the other. He said he was subconsciously thumbing the left hammer (not the one for the barrel that held the shell that killed Amanda) when the gun fired a round into the bedroom. He said he didn't remember the other shot that killed Amanda, nor how it happened. But all this fell apart when that weapon was put in his hand. He was unable to do what he'd claimed to be doing. He could barely get his thumb on the hammer, much less play with it subconsciously to cause the gun to fire. With conscious effort he had to work hard to bring the hammer back even a little. He now had no credibility left with anyone who had the least bit of objectivity.
A few minutes later, the coached actor we'd observed since the trial began disappeared for just a second or two. When told by Meyer that he was unable to show the court what he claimed to be doing with the gun to cause the "accident," Gorecke replied, "Ma'am, that gun is dangerous and I don't want to touch it. If I wanted I could flip that gun around in my hand. I could make it do about anything I want." Yes, no sign of contrition in that instant.
Instead, Meyer had brought out the Cody Gorecke who killed Amanda. She shattered the carefully constructed image of the murderer created by the defense counsel and showed the judge and everyone else the real Cody Gorecke. The cocky, vain, and narcissistic braggart who had to show everyone his illegal weapon that night had suddenly appeared on the stand.
His attorney tried to redirect, but little could be done to reestablish the choir boy image at this point. Closing arguments followed Gorecke's testimony.
Meyer summarized the case pretty quickly, then the defense counsel again shocked us with his absolute brazen insensitivity. Earlier he had Gorecke tell the judge he did not want probation, that he wasn't asking for probation. He sat on the stand and told us, the judge, and everyone in the court he wanted to be held accountable for Amanda's death. But in closing arguments, Russo called on Judge Kemp to give Gorecke a suspended sentence. In other words, they didn't want probation, but they didn't want prison either! He went further off the deep end claiming the maximum sentence would be the easy way out for the court, and that society would be better served by forcing Gorecke to speak with youth groups about the dangers of drinking, drug use, and guns instead of serving time.
I didn't have a high opinion of defense lawyers before this trial, and this one caused my opinion to sink even lower.
"For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad." -- 2 Corinthians 5:10
But apparently the judge wasn't too impressed by Russo's attempts to make his client out to be a victim either.
Once Gorecke pleaded guilty to manslaughter and the other charges, the maximum sentence he could receive was 16 years, 10 years for manslaughter and 6 for use of a prohibited weapon. Judge Kemp took about an hour to deliberate before coming back and handing down the maximum sentence on all counts, and ordering the 10 and 6 year sentences be served consecutively. He also issued the maximum sentence for each of the misdemeanor counts, but those must be served concurrently with the felonies by law. In short though, we received everything the judge had in his power to give us as far as justice in this case.
It's not enough and I told the judge that while I was on the stand. He could do no more, but my little girl was 17 years old, with her whole life ahead of her. Her future was stolen, as was a future that all of us in her family so looked forward to. She didn't get to graduate high school, go to college, get a job, get married, have kids, or a thousand other things.
Instead of watching our child walk across the stage and receive her diploma, we got to decorate an empty chair and stare at it throughout the ceremony. Instead of packing her up and moving her to college, we get to throw away mail from colleges and credit card companies that come to the house for her to this day. Instead of helping her plan her wedding, we planned her funeral. Instead of grandkids, we have Amanda's pictures to stare at for the rest of our lives, but no pictures beyond her 17th year.
Nothing could bring her back. Nothing can replace those things we'll never have again. So there can be no justice for Amanda's murder here on earth. But the Bible promises us there will be justice. Not here, but one day justice will be served to Cody Gorecke. And even though we know that, even though that's what we cling to, anything less than the maximum sentence would be an injustice, to Amanda, to us, and to society at large.
I made this argument to the judge from the witness stand also. This trial to determine punishment for Gorecke wasn't about revenge, and the most important thing was not to get back at him. God will handle that in His own time. We know that.
But punishment of crimes here on earth serves for more than simple retribution. Punishment of criminals is essential to protect society from those who victimize the innocent. As long as Gorecke is behind bars, he won't kill anyone else's daughter or son. It's also important to punish crimes for the deterrent effect on other would-be criminals. On my way to the trial I chose not to drive 70 miles per hour on 55 mile per hour highways, not because the speed limit was 55, but because I was unwilling to risk being caught and having to pay the consequences of driving 70. There is a deterrent to those who would kill when they know their punishment will be more than a slap on the wrist, or a suspended sentence. We must punish crimes, especially violent crimes, here on earth if we hope to have any semblance of law and order in our society.
So I guess the question now is, do I think justice was served? My answer to that is, "No." But I don't think it was possible to really get justice here on earth for this case. I do think the Cleburne County Sheriff's Office, the Prosecutor's Office (Holly Meyer, Don McSpadden, Stephanie, and all the rest who worked on this case), and Judge Kemp did everything they could to see that we got as close as possible. I am happy and satisfied with all their efforts. For justice though, real justice, that will come in God's time, when He is ready.
I haven't really laid out what happened that night. In the past because I was asked not to by the prosecutor's office. This post was written more to explain the punishment than the crime. But I will soon sit down and lay out in another post my theories on the case and the evidence that shaped them.
This part of this tragedy is finished for now. In about two and a half years we'll face the ordeal of testifying at parole hearings, but for now we can focus on honoring God and the memory of our beautiful daughter.
I really hope that others hear Amanda's story and recognize the dangers of teen substance abuse. I will always believe that if then-19-year-old Gorecke had not been drunk and high, my beautiful daughter would still be alive. If she had chosen not to go there because there was alcohol and drugs, she would still be alive. It's dangerous and it's illegal for a reason. The death of my daughter is proof. I hope and pray that her story will spare someone else the pain and suffering we'll endure the rest of our lives.
If you don't know Jesus as your personal savior, if you're missing the faith, hope, and love written about here, if you want the peace that we as Christians have in our lives, please visit our Got Jesus? page for step-by-step instructions on how to accept Jesus Christ as your personal Savior.