Balancing justice

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In his closing arguments Monday at the sentencing hearing of Anthony Ware, special prosecutor John Alexander, the Botetourt County deputy commonwealth’s attorney, argued that there’s a perception that folks of means can steal hundreds of thousands of dollars through embezzlement and not face jail time while someone might not be so lucky for taking a few bucks out of the cash register of the local convenience store.
    The comment brought a stern objection from Ware’s defense attorney Mark Arthur, who argued that Alexander didn’t have a basis to make that comment on behalf of the public’s perception. Though Alexander withdrew the comment, it wasn’t lost on Circuit Court Judge James Updike who would ultimately decide if jail time was due for Ware, convicted on a dozen charges of embezzlement and money laundering.
    Turns out Judge Updike had been thinking along the same thoughts as Alexander’s reasoning.
    “I have seen people go to jail for stealing a cheap bottle of wine,” Judge Updike explained in handing out the 12 month jail sentence to the former Bedford County supervisor.
    And with that, he ordered Ware into immediate custody.
    There certainly was a lot on the scales that had to be balanced in Ware’s case.
    On the one hand, as four witnesses pointed out at Monday’s hearing, Ware has spent decades serving the citizens of this community, including serving on the Board of Supervisors. He’s cooked Brunswick Stew for fundraisers and to feed hungry hikers along the Appalachian Trail. He’s helped businesses get started; he’s helped feed youth and church VBS events. He’s raised money for good causes and worked to help the Big Island community put its best foot forward.
    But then, there’s the other side.
    On that side rests the $295,000 he stole from a fundraiser for two children who had lost a parent, from the Big Island Volunteer Fire Department where he served as treasurer and from a relative whose estate he was overseeing. There was the church that was supposed to receive some of the funds from that estate; there was the Fire Department that lost much more than a mere dollar figure of funds it could pinpoint had been stolen. There was trust that had been broken; there is trust that now has to be rebuilt.
    Alexander was right when he stated public perception is that some criminals of lesser means seem to get harsher sentences for crimes involving far less than the amount of funds Ware stands convicted of stealing. Judge Updike felt that way too. There were probably several others in that courtroom with the same thoughts on Monday, and certainly quite a few in the community.
    The Commonwealth argued for a 5-year prison sentence; Ware got 12 months.
    But some jail time was warranted. While Ware might not be a danger to the community, as his lawyer pointed out, some of the damage he’s done will take years to repair.
    Yes, as one of Ware’s friends pointed out, forgiveness is always better than vengeance. But the jail sentence imposed wasn’t vengeance, it was justice. The victims, and the public, needed to see that handed out equally—regardless of who was on trial.
    And it was.