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Sentencing of Viktor Bout - I was there!
As a fourteen-year-old, I’ve come to learn that being tall (and carrying a notepad) has many advantages. Especially if you want information.
Manhattan is a vibrant, hopping place, but what goes on inside the hundreds of buildings that line its streets is a story all its own—and how my heart was pounding as I waited outside a courtroom in The Federal District Court of New York, surrounded by prestigious members of the press.
The sentencing of Viktor Bout, a notorious Russian arms dealer, was due to proceed in just a few minutes, and the courtroom on April 5 was close to packed. At the door, a woman and two U.S. Marshalls stood directing the keyed-up crowd, and asked that the first ten people present please enter. I am not a journalist (yet!), but I didn’t even question my possible rejection as I got in line—I’d been waiting there for an hour, so they better let me in!
Following those in front of me, I made my way to the jury box and found a seat in the second row (yes—I sat in the jury box!)
On a sudden impulse, I turned to the woman behind me and asked, “Excuse me, are you a journalist?”
“Yes I am,” she replied, showing me her Press tag.
“That’s so cool!” I exclaimed, perhaps a tad immaturely.
She smiled uncertainly. “Yeah, I guess it is. Aren’t you a reporter?”
Me, a reporter? Why yes, of course! I travel globally, working for the New York Times… “Haha, no, I’m in ninth grade,” I answered, doing my best to mask my state of sheer delight and satisfaction that this Los Angeles Times reporter thought that I was a journalist!
“Oh!” she laughed. “Well you are certainly off to a very good start!”
The young man next to me turned with a grin: “Yes, I would definitely agree with that!” he chuckled. “You’re in here before The Wall Street Journal!”
For a student-slash-aspiring-English-and-journalism-teacher like myself, it doesn’t get much more awesome than that!
“All rise!” boomed a voice that shook me out of my euphoric state. Trembling slightly, I obeyed as Judge Schiendlin was swept in on a breeze of authority.
Addressing all present, she stated Bout’s charges (conspiracy to kill U.S. officers, conspiracy to use nuclear missiles, offenses involving firearms, conspiracy to sell machine guns and explosives, involvement in arms trafficking while aware that they’d be used to kill Americans, and personal support of terrorism against the U.S.) and explained that she’d reviewed evidence presented in the case and considered letters sent by various individuals before deciding on his sentence.
Mr. Bout’s lawyer was then given a few minutes to rant about why he was innocent, and stated that the government uses “inflammatory language to prejudice the fact-finder”. He challenged his listeners to point to any piece of evidence justifying a life sentence. The laws being applied, he demanded, were “created for terrorists, not Viktor Bout”, and that “he’s here now, because he spoke negatively against Americans” and, “will it someday become that someone thinking about missiles” will be jailed? His final statement was a plead to the Judge that more than twenty-five years in jail “would be taking a life”, and indicated that he and the defense team are working on matters of appeal.
At this point, Mr. Bout himself addressed the courtroom and the world: “Your Honor,” he began. “I’m not guilty, never intended to kill anyone, never intended to sell arms to anyone. God knows it’s the truth, and this truth is known by these people here. They will live with this truth, get up with this truth, go to bed with this truth, raise their children with this truth, and love their wives with this truth! I am thankful to the Unites States—people with clear consciences [he named his lawyers]—because they treated me with respect. Let God forgive you,” He pointed at the audience, his eyes bright with hatred and anger; a sudden shift from the cheerful thumbs-up he’d given his wife earlier. “And you will answer to Him, not to me. Time will answer to me and to my country!”
Subsequently the prosecutor insisted that Bout was “here because of choices”—at which point Bout yelled, “It’s a lie!”—and the prosecutor continued that he is an experienced, intelligent man who, at any given moment, could’ve chosen to halt his participation in the arms trafficking.
The sentencing was drawn to a close with Judge Schiendlin’s final words: “The public does need protection from the defendant . . . [he] responded to an opportunity to sell arms, but was not actively looking for [one]. . . [he just] embraced an opportunity [to do so.]” The Judge also commented on how unusual this case is, as Bout was captured by a STING operation – a group of people posing as FARC members interested in buying arms from him.
She “concluded [that] thirty years is not a reasonable sentence”, and thus Viktor Bout’s fate became a fee of four-hundred dollars to be paid immediately, a forfeiture of fifteen million dollars, and twenty-five years and fifteen years in prison to run concurrently, followed by five years of supervised release.
I left the courtroom that day, my mind giddy with thoughts and excitement over the experience. I had sat in the jury box with REAL JOURNALISTS, and watched the sentencing of an international arms dealer whom the government had been after for years. That night and the following day, the media was full of the news of Bout’s pending incarceration, and I couldn’t help reading it all with a little smile on my face, because I was THERE, and similar things I took notes on appeared in the New York Times and other famous publications!
Too. Cool. For. Words.