A tragedy played out in court

Accompanied by his father, Joe Neary, Kevin was wheeled out of the van as he arrived Wednesday at the Criminal Justice Center.
Accompanied by his father, Joe Neary, Kevin was wheeled out of the van as he arrived Wednesday at the Criminal Justice Center. (APRIL SAUL / Staff Photographer)

For shooting victim and his family, pain but no rancor.

Posted: September 17, 2012

The drama that played out in Courtroom 907 of the Criminal Justice Center last week was a classic urban tragedy.

The victim - a well-loved, hardworking Ivy League graduate - faced his attacker, an antisocial, high school dropout with homemade tattoos whose only advocate was the defense attorney.

But the script deviated.

Usually, there is rancor. The victim's friends and relatives testify about how their lives have been damaged and do not hold back their fury at the perpetrator. That didn't happen.

Usually, the victims themselves are not present.

"Usually," says Common Pleas Court Judge Jeffrey Minehart, "they are dead." Minehart, one of the city's 10 homicide judges, said that Commonwealth v. Christopher Easton was "as close to a homicide as you can get." The victim, Kevin Neary, survived. Barely. And the story he lived to tell was as heartbreaking as any the 65-year-old judge has heard in decades of jurisprudence.

Easton and Neary lived within blocks of each other but worlds apart in the gentrifying slurry of Northern Liberties.

On Nov. 15 at 2:30 a.m. they crossed paths on a dark, empty street. Easton asked for Neary's money. Neary tried to reason with him. He had only $16 in his wallet. Hardly worth the trouble.

"I'm not playing," Easton said and pulled out a gun.

In the fraction of a second it took for the bullet to tear through sweater, skin, muscle, and nerve, they were done.

Neary slumped to the sidewalk. Easton ran off into the night.

The next time they saw each other was 10 months later at the sentencing hearing.

Neary in his wheelchair with his nurse at his side, breathing through a ventilator, wearing a crisp white shirt, gray pin-striped suit, and polished black dress shoes. Easton beside his lawyer, nervously pursing his lips, swimming in the charcoal shirt, jeans, and sneakers the court lends inmates who don't have their own clothes.

By the end, nearly everyone in the courtroom was left contemplating the big questions. The fierceness with which some people cling to life and the indifference with which others toss it away. The indomitability of human spirit and the callousness bred by neglect and despair.

"Kids don't start out evil, but they end up evil because of adults," Minehart would say. He would also, for the first time, step down from the bench to tell a victim how much he admired him.

Both sides had been prepared for a painful trial.

When Easton was arrested three days after the shooting, he told the detectives he had been bored, so he decided to rob the white guy he saw walking by alone. He never meant to harm Neary, he said, and in a recorded telephone call from prison, he boasted to his girlfriend, "I'm going to beat this." Over the summer as the trial approached, however, his confidence began to falter.

Jury selection was scheduled to begin Monday. Easton's grandmother, Wanda Graves, had showed up, with two of his half-sisters. By the next day, they were gone. Graves, who had driven up with her husband from their home in Florida, said she misunderstood how long the process would take and had to get back to work. The sisters, one a recent high school graduate, the other still in school, both live in Philadelphia, but left without a word.

Tuesday, Richard DeSipio, a prominent defense attorney working pro bono, gave Easton some last-minute advice. The judge said that if convicted of attempted murder, Easton would face 41 to 81 years. Easton, who turned 21 in prison in April, leaned over to DeSipio and whispered in his ear, "I want to plead." The prosecutor called Joe Neary with the news.

Joe, 62, a widowed accountant from Upper Chichester, and his bear-hugging Irish Catholic family were already on their way into Center City. They drove instead to a restaurant to celebrate over bison burgers and Pimm's Cups. Then they went home to prepare their victim-impact statements.

Wednesday morning, television crews were waiting for them outside the courthouse. Kevin was wheeled into a waiting room while Joe headed for the ninth floor to greet relatives and friends. The elevators were so clogged with lawyers, jurors, and court personnel that he gave up and took the stairs. Flushed and sweating, he promised to get to the gym more often.

At 11:30, Minehart entered. An avuncular man, bald and round, the judge has a reputation as tough but fair. He explained the proceedings, and minutes later, Joe Neary was swearing to tell the truth.

"Kevin's injury," he said, "has altered the course of our lives completely. The 24-hour care drains us both." He talked about his son's loss of privacy, how a team has to help Kevin with every bodily function. He described his thwarted plans after retirement to visit all the best baseball stadiums in the country. He was sad and angry, knowing Kevin was unlikely to marry and have children.

"And I'm scared," he said. "Because I know that in 10 years, I won't be able to physically take care of Kevin's needs and I don't know who will take care of him." He started to read the next sentence, but broke down. "I can't finish," he said, dropping his head into his hands. "Can you?" he asked the prosecutor, handing her the paper as he walked back to his son.

"Thanks, Dad," Neary said, and his nurse dabbed the tears streaming down his cheeks.

Next came Neary's older brother, J.P. "Over the long haul, the burden falls to me and my family," he said. "We can never go back." Then Christopher, the youngest. Kevin looked out for him and others, he said. "He's always been really independent. . . . Every aspect of living life as a quadriplegic is hard. Kevin will tell you it doesn't define him . . . but it's harder for him to be a big brother to other people."

When it was Kevin Neary's turn, his nurse, Sumika Johnson, who has been caring for him since March, pushed his wheelchair past the railing and up to the front of the room. She swiveled him around to face the crowd and put on the brake.

He thanked her. Thanked the judge. Thanked everyone for coming. Then he turned his head as far to the left as he could. His range of motion is limited by stabilizing hardware in his neck, but his view was clear enough. On the opposite corner of the room, he saw Easton raise his head and look in his direction.

It seemed to Neary that they never made eye contact.

Johnson held up his statement. "My day begins at 6 a.m.," he read softly, his voice surfing the air pumped through the tube in his throat. "I am hooked up to a catheter. I have to be turned every two hours . . ." He spoke candidly, a docent giving a tour of life inside a body with no will of its own. "I get an enema every day and a nebulizer treatment, which," he noted, "is amazingly loud!" The crowd laughed, grateful for the relief.

"At 7 a.m. there is a nursing change. They debrief me about my night." Sometimes, they tell him he talked in his sleep. Often, he wakes up, his mind racing. "You have the sensation that your legs are falling off the bed, but there they are, right in the middle." He described the elaborate choreography required to shower and get dressed. Listed the medications he takes to control his blood pressure, prevent muscle spasms, avoid blood clots and pneumonia. Periodically, he was interrupted by the ventilator, issuing loud warning beeps.

"Sorry. That's me!" he said, getting another laugh that died abruptly when he explained, "That sound indicates I've been talking too much or not getting enough air." Since June, Neary has been hospitalized seven times for various infections, dehydration, and delirium. Once, he found himself lying in bloodied sheets. His body had balked at the catheter.

"Pressure sores are the thing I fear most," he said. "Any red spot might eat away at my bone and leave me in an even more incapacitated state."

He continued. "I can't brush my own teeth," he said. "I've worked very hard to be able to shrug my shoulders." One of his biggest achievements has been to master the pacemaker that triggers his diaphragm and allows him to breathe without the ventilator. When he first got it last spring, he could go for half an hour. Now he's up to a marathoner's 22 hours. His voice doesn't project as well when he is using it, though, so for the hearing he was on the ventilator.

What's hardest is knowing he's a burden, he said. He doesn't see how he could fall in love with someone without worrying that she'd have to take care of him.

"I feel bad for my older brother," he testified. "He doesn't get to spend enough time with his girlfriend. . . . And my dad. He's my best friend." He addressed Joe directly. "I think you're tired." Neary, who turns 30 this week, hopes to get back to work someday. Through fund-raisers and a social-media campaign to sell Friends of Kevin Neary T-shirts, he wants to support spinal cord injury research and help people pay for their care and rehabilitation. But he doesn't have as much time, or the energy, for that yet. Staying alive, he said, has been a full-time job.

"The bad days are when I couldn't breathe, when I didn't want to breathe," he said. "I try to stay upbeat, but there are times when I have my doubts about whether I can make it another day." He has repeatedly said he isn't angry or bitter toward Easton.

"I feel bad for people in his circumstances," people who haven't had a strong family, he said before the hearing. "I hope he gets the rehabilitation he needs . . . and I feel it should be a long-term sentence. Because if he gets out in 10 or 15 years for a crime that causes me a lifetime of agony, it wouldn't be fair. To me or others." In his testimony, though, he simply thanked the court again for giving him the time to speak and asked Johnson to wheel him back to his spot beside his father.

The prosecution called more witnesses.

Neary's friend and hair stylist comes to visit him every Monday. "It's my favorite day of the week," he said. "Kevin made me look at my own life and take nothing for granted."

A police officer who grew up on the same block as Easton said he'd known Chris since he was a little boy. The family was poor, he said, but did their best. Easton's stepfather worked two jobs and Chris' six siblings are all doing well. One serves in the Navy. Another works in a hospital. None of them have been in trouble with the law.

"His mother wasn't around," he said. "At 10 or 11, he wouldn't go to school."

Tasha Jamerson, spokeswoman for the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office, testified that four years ago, when she moved onto the same block, Easton helped her. Neighbors felt sorry for him, offering odd jobs, encouragement, and even food. "We blame ourselves," she said, for giving him the benefit of the doubt.

When DeSipio stood in Easton's defense, he sighed. "What the hell do I say after such a horrific tragedy?" All he could think of, the attorney said, was "nature vs. nature." Easton's parents were both crack addicts. His stepfather and grandmother had tried, but could not save him.

Somewhere along the way, Graves said in an interview from Florida, her grandson was poisoned by his hurt and disappointment. She loves him, but almost didn't recognize the angry man in his mug shot.

"He's not a monster. But he's not a victim in any way," DeSipio said. "There is only one victim in this courtroom." In the end, he would be sentenced to 30 to 60 years.

When Easton stood, at last, hands clasped behind his back. "I apologize," he mumbled. "You probably don't believe me, but I truly apologize for what I've done. It was a selfish act and I was under the influence. I had a lot of stuff on my plate. I would toss and turn some nights . . ." He caught himself sounding as if he were making excuses and stopped, turning to Neary. "I really didn't mean for that to happen to you."

Neary couldn't hear a word over the wheeze and whoosh of the ventilator.

Contact Melissa Dribben

at 215-854-2590 or mdribben@phillynews.com.

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