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A convicted killer’s gift spurs a federal judge to remember balance in sentencing

Posted Jun 17, 2013 6:15 AM CDT
By Debra Cassens Weiss

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Senior U.S. District Judge Richard Kopf's gift briefcase.
Photo courtesy of Kopf.

Sure, virtue is its own reward. But a briefcase from a convicted killer has special meaning for a federal judge who once helped the inmate.

Senior U.S. District Judge Richard Kopf of Nebraska writes about the gift at his blog Hercules and the Umpire. Before he became a judge, Kopf was appointed to represent David Tommy Gene Suggett, who was sentenced to 30 years in prison for fatally stabbing a man in a bar fight.

“When I represented Tommy Gene, I spent a lot of time with him,” Kopf writes. “I really got to know him. I learned that he had been born in Arkansas, that his family had abandoned him at a young age, that he spent a lot of nights sleeping in farm wagons filled with cotton, that he had virtually no education, that he had never been in any real trouble, that he had drifted from Arkansas to Nebraska on the hope of farm work, that all the guards and case managers who dealt with him in the prison thought so much of him that they were willing to sign statements for presentation to the judge expressing their view that Tommy Gene ought to be released from prison.”

Kopf managed to get Suggett’s sentence reduced to 15 years, allowing his release on parole. Kopf never saw his client again, but he did hear from his friend. “One day a pretty woman walked into our law office and said she would like to speak to me,” Kopf writes. “I came out to the counter, and she introduced herself as one of Tommy Gene’s friends. She said she had something for me from Tommy. With that, she gave me the leather briefcase that is pictured below [it has Kopf’s name on it]. She told me that Tommy Gene had paid one of the other inmates to make the case for me. She said that Tommy Gene said, ‘Thanks.’ With that, she left.”

Kopf says the briefcase sits in his office, and he looks at it before he sentences defendants. “When I do, I hope for balance,” he writes. “Sometimes it works.”

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