And Bobby O’Day is still dead.

You can’t get past that. You think about it now, almost four years later, how it happened, in a high school hallway, where O’Day, one of the most popular kids, tried to break up a fight and got stabbed in the chest and died, slowly, in front of children. And now you hear that his killer is out of jail, free on probation. And Bobby O’Day is still dead.

“Where is the justice?” we want to know. Students wept at Romulus High School, where O’Day’s body lay inside a coffin. He was a senior, handsome, confident, captain of the football team. He wanted to play for a college in New Mexico. The day of his funeral, the phone rang. A recruiter was calling to offer Bobby a scholarship.

“My son is dead,” said Robert O’Day Sr.

And nothing has changed. Except that Darryl Johnson, then 16, who pulled a pocketknife and dug it in O’Day’s flesh, is out on probation. He is walking around somewhere, maybe seeing a movie or eating lunch. If he stays clean for three years, under something called the Youthful Trainee Act, the crime will be erased from his record; he will bear no blood stains of the life he took. And the real victims, O’Day’s family, friends, and former teammates, are left with the bitter acid of unrequited revenge.

And Bobby O’Day is still dead.
‘We believe in this kid’ This is an agony that goes on every day in America. How can we balance punishment with the crime? How can we make them hurt like we do — and still show mercy? It is a question that may have no answer. James Rashid, a 35-year-old Wayne County Circuit Court judge, tried to find one anyhow.

He heard the screams from Romulus. Justice! He heard the tears of the assailant, Johnson, who spent several years behind bars. And he tried to do his job. “Rehabilitation,” says Rashid, “is part of our system. If that wasn’t the case, we would be putting everyone in jail and throwing away the key.”

So he took testimony from nine witnesses, including prison counselors and a priest, all of whom swore that Johnson was a good kid who made a tragic mistake and was sorry. Johnson himself reportedly told the judge, “My mother raised me to respect human life. . . . I know how my mother would feel if she lost me.” And then broke down, crying.

Rashid: “I asked those witnesses, ‘Why are you here?’ They said, ‘Because we believe in this kid.’ “

In the end, Rashid did, too. He granted Johnson his freedom, dismissing the need for another trial. The crazy thing is, the only reason Johnson was eligible was because his first trial — in which he was found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to eight to 15 years in prison — was overturned. An Appeals Court ruled it unfair, due to some nasty words exchanged between the judge and Johnson’s attorney. A new trial was ordered, paving the way for the probation request.

A technicality. Freedom.

And Bobby O’Day is still dead. Who speaks for Bobby O’Day? In Nevada, in the apartment where Mary and Robert O’Day live, a room is reserved for Bobby, as if he might one day come home from school. Inside are his trophies and letter jacket. “No one can ever know how we feel,” says his mother, softly, over the telephone.

She has heard the news. She has heard of the witnesses testifying for Johnson. “Did anyone testify,” she asks, “as to the goodness of my son?

“That man was supposed to serve up to 15 years. What did he serve? Two? I’m sure he’s very happy. But we don’t have our son anymore. Where is the justice in that?”

She trembles as she speaks. Mary O’Day is the lonely voice of disillusion.

She once believed in our judicial system. Now she says if she were called for jury duty, she doubts she would serve. “It’s a mockery.” And this may be the bloodiest wound of all, the end result of all these shortened prison sentences that make us shake our heads: good people turning cynical. The souring of America.

Killing is the worst of us. Compassion is the best. But somewhere in between must lie justice. James Rashid did what he thought was right; he freed a man who was a teenage criminal. He insists this was a “special case.” And the city holds its breath that his mercy is not rewarded with another knife. “If he ever does anything wrong again,” says Rashid, “I will lose all faith in people and my ability to judge them. That’s how certain I am that he has been rehabilitated.”

And in Nevada, a mother walks into an empty room, and dusts the football trophies. Bobby O’Day is still dead.

Who does she see about that?

Mitch Albom’s columns appear regularly in the Free Press sports section.

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