The High Cost of Justice

The murder trial of Blaine Keith Milam was a monumental event for Rusk County citizens.

Milam, 20, was convicted of capital murder May 17 for killing 13-month-old Amora Carson, the daughter of his girlfriend, Jessica Carson. Milam, who was charged in December 2008, was convicted and sentenced to death last month.

While taxpayer costs, after more than a year’s span of time invested by local law enforcement agencies, have not yet been determined, the case has left a major imprint on this county of 47,372 people.

Nowhere is the emotional toll felt more than by those most directly involved, not least of which being the presiding judge.

State 4th District Judge J. Clay Gossett said that while attorneys, jury members and other staffers were working full-time at the Milam capital murder trial in Montgomery County, there were still responsibilities to be taken care of closer to home.

“I’d still have to come back some nights or on the weekends to sign files,” Gossett said. “We tried to take advantage of some of the downtime to stay caught up while we were in the midst of the trial, so that we weren’t too far behind when we came back. But there’s still a rhythm that a trial takes you out of and it takes a little while to get back into once you return home.”

A trial comes at a enormous cost to jury members as well, most of whom were taken away from day-to-day routines of life and work to stay sequestered away from loved ones.

“We knew this case was going to take two to three weeks, in addition to the six weeks it took to pick the jury, so we had to keep in mind the time investment required by these people,” Gossett said. “For those with children, the timing couldn’t be worse with graduations and the end of the school year […] and others had obligations to work or even reservations made for vacations and other sorts of things, so you have to be aware and sensitive to what you’re asking jurors to invest in their time and of themselves.”

The scheduling aspect is a full-time job, Gossett said, and the work of administrators to keep matters carefully orchestrated is invaluable.

Murder trials, especially capital murder trials in the state of Texas, are more challenging to those involved because the likelihood of the death penalty looms large.

Gossett echoed the well-worn judicial maxim that “death is different.” Meaning that, because the case is “a matter of life and death” for the accused, the entire process requires a level of professionalism and adherence to protocol that goes above and beyond the merely passable.

“We handle them differently than anything else – and for good reason,” Gossett said. “Because the crime of murdering another human being is at the highest levels of criminal acts and because capital punishment is the highest level of punishment.”

The grave importance of all these factors, Gossett said, changes the entire dynamic of the trial for everyone.

“It heightens your awareness of every situation, every process, to make sure we are doing everything right and ‘by the book,’ because it demands nothing less than your full attention to detail and adherence to procedure,” Gossett said. “But this does take a toll, especially as this level of intensity continues over the extended period of time involved in a capital murder trial.”

Add to this when the crime is of a particularly violent or gruesome manner. Or when the victim is an innocent child, and the death is both gruesome and violent.

Amora Carson died from blunt-force trauma inflicted on her Dec. 2, 2008. Milam and Jessica Carson, both of Rusk County, said they repeatedly struck the toddler with an undisclosed object in an attempt to remove demons from the child during an exorcism.

Expert testimony for the prosecution during the trial said bite marks found on Amora Carson’s body belonged to Milam, and that Carson’s suffering was prolonged.

“In a case where you have to hear testimony or view evidence that is not pleasant, it takes a toll,” Gossett said. “Sure, it takes a toll on the lawyers, court officials and staffers, and even myself as judge but this is something that we see often enough to develop a certain conditioning to it […] not that you ever become totally desensitized, but you’ve seen it before and, as a result, have the ability to deal with it a lot easier.”

Jurors, on the other hand, typically lack this conditioning and, as such, bear a heavy burden in serving on capital murder cases.

“This is not their job, this is not their profession, and more than likely they have never seen anything like this,” Gossett said. “When the case was over, I made sure there was counseling and a psychiatrist freely available to the jury to help them deal with all the things they had to see and hear.”

In a trial of this magnitude, Gossett said, the cost to the community cannot always be measure in dollars, but more important than the cost is that justice is truly served and that the laws of the land are upheld.

“The cost to the community is certainly something I value, especially as an elected official,” Gossett said. “But more than this, I value my duty to the people of this state to ensure that their costs are worth what is purchased, by justice being served in my courtroom.”

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