How Do We Measure Remorse?

October 14, 2019, 12:40 am

Everyone responds to shame and fear in different ways. Some responses are very visible and public. Others are private and unseen. This variety of responses is perhaps no more obvious than in how people accused of crimes react in a courtroom. Some make emotional displays of grief or anger, and others remain stoic, seemingly apathetic to the harms they’ve been accused of or the potential prison sentence they are facing. 
Ten years ago last month, I was sentenced to seventeen to forty-five years in prison. I had been sitting in the county jail for seven months as lawyers on both sides delayed proceedings. I was offered a plea deal early on but rejected it, not because I claimed to be innocent, but because my lawyer advised me to reject that plea for various reasons. Eventually, I accepted a slightly different plea deal and was sentenced within the following weeks. 

At my sentencing, my attorney made it clear, at my request, that I had always maintained my guilt of the charge to which I pled. The judge asked me several questions, which I answered, and then I was given a brief moment to speak. It was my first opportunity to publicly address the crime to which I had just pled guilty. I had spent hours the night before agonizing, through many tears, over how to adequately express my sorrow for what I’d done. It was important to me that I express to those I’d harmed and others affected by my crime how remorseful I am for what I’d done. 

As I nervously read my prepared statement, my whole body trembled because of the fear and shame I felt. My statement was briefer than I wanted, but some of the remorse I needed to express could not be suitably done in such a public setting. It was important to me that I think very carefully about how my words would impact those who mattered the most. 

When I finished speaking, the judge addressed me with a scathing rebuke before he sentenced me. He rightly rebuked me for my crime, but then he accused me of being remorseless. Because I had not shed any tears at my sentencing, he interpreted my stoicism as a lack of remorse. He couldn’t have been further from the truth. For seven months I had cried myself to sleep nearly every night. I cried mostly for the destruction I had caused and for the many people who suffered because of me. I also cried because I was losing the most important people in my life. But I cried and grieved privately. 

Anyone who really knows me knows that public displays of emotions have not always been easy for me. But the judge didn’t know me–he never spoke with me except in court. The prosecutor didn’t know me–he never once spoke to me. My own defense lawyer didn’t even really know me–I’d only seen him three times in seven months. To be fair though, nobody really knew me–I didn’t even know myself. Nevertheless, it was hard hearing myself characterized as unremorseful, for that couldn’t have been further from the truth. 

Everyone responds differently to shame and fear. But we shouldn’t be so quick to judge a person’s remorse or lack thereof based on emotional demonstrations. For some people, like me, public displays of emotion are difficult. For others, emotional displays are natural, and they appear authentic. If we really want to know if someone is remorseful for causing others harm, we have to get to know them. Unfortunately, it’s far easier to make snap judgments based on first impressions.

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The opinions expressed within posts and comments are solely those of each author, and are not necessarily those of Women Against Registry.

The opinions expressed within posts and comments are solely those of each author, and are not necessarily those of Women Against Registry.