Justice for Don Belton

remembering a writer and friend



Today Michael Griffin was sentenced to 55 years, minus 5 for “a probationary term”   (more on this below). Given that he can receive two days off for every day served with good behavior, including the previous year of jail time, he’ll presumably be in prison for at least 24 more years. He plans to appeal the conviction.

Today’s proceedings did not take place in front of a jury—the only people present were friends and family of Michael Griffin, and (by my count) two Don supporters—so some of what was said wasn’t carefully explained and clarified as it had been during the trial. This means 1) that I didn’t fully understand all that was said, and 2) that I might need to add to or correct some of the following.

The sentencing began at 10:30 as lawyers from both sides testified that they had read and received the “pre-sentencing investigation report.” Michael hadn’t gotten a copy until arriving at the courtroom, and had been reading through it for the previous 20 minutes or so. After a few small clarifications about facts contained in this report, none of whose contents was read aloud, the defense lawyer (just one this time, I believe his name is Collins) called a variety of character witnesses to the stand to present mitigating circumstances. On being individually sworn in, most everyone said the same things: Michael Griffin was a peaceful person who avoided conflict; Michael Griffin was nonviolent; Michael Griffin was a good friend and a nice person. The first two witnesses, Corey Mullis and Madison McLean (both male), testified (in quiet voices) to having known Michael since middle school and having been long-time friends. Mullis presented the court with a handmade card that Michael made for him, using colored pencils, which was then passed around to the prosecution and judge as evidence of Michael’s good character. He testified that Michael was “for the most part a very level-headed individual,” implying near the end that Michael had lost but was trying to “find his way.” McLean, a former roommate of Michael’s, said that he couldn’t think of a time when Michael was pushy or violent, adding that he was nonviolent “to a fault”—whatever that means. The point seemed to be that Michael always tried to talk things through; much of the testimony overall had to do with “problems” and “solutions,” and Michael’s even-handed way of handling both.

A few bits of testimony stood out. The third witness called, Zachary Wagner, was dressed in a suit and had a small infant in tow. He testified that Michael—who has been “thrown some curveballs” in life—had been a best friend since middle school, was basically good, etc.; but then he added some of the following. I admit that this first point was fuzzy, but it had to do with the question of “premeditation,” and knives. The murder was not premeditated. He and Michael were “knife enthusiasts” for whom knives are considered “not weapons, but tools.” He then added something about the “philosophical significance” of knives, but I didn’t fully grasp his point and he moved on pretty quickly. Next he tried to show that Michael was a good father, but his approach was odd. He said something to this effect: “as many of you know, several people refused to be here today in support of Michael, claiming that if Michael had been thinking of his son he never would have done what he did.” Wagner said he agreed with them: Michael (a loving father) wasn’t thinking of his son when he killed Don; otherwise, it wouldn’t have happened. So: Michael is a terrific dad because (or despite the fact that?) he wasn’t thinking of his son that day. Like I said, the logic here was pretty strange.

The next witness was Michael’s sister, Rita Griffin, who after her testimony the prosecution lawyers thanked for her cooperation and general amiableness during the months leading up to, and during, the trial. She was asked by the defense to describe what it was like growing up with Michael as her brother. She immediately began crying, telling the judge that Michael was “amazing, amazing,” “the best brother anyone could ever have.” But then an odd thing happened: she launched into a story about being picked on by a bully when she was a kid in school, and how one day this bully came up to her, looking “roughed up,” to apologize. She later learned that Michael had confronted the kid, telling him if he ever needed to get to Rita he would have to go through him first. I for one found it bizarre that she would tell a story like this—about Michael’s having beaten up, or threatened, someone—when the whole point of this was to declare again and again that Michael was a nonviolent person always seeking “peaceful solutions.” No one batted an eye, though, and the judge later stated that she had heard the witnesses collectively testify to Michael’s calm level-headedness. Apparently the violence at the heart of Rita’s anecdote registered not at all.

Rita also talked about Michael’s time in Iraq, and a boy he “took a special liking to” there, who later died “in Michael’s arms.” We were reminded that Michael was temporarily deafened in this same incident, and carries shrapnel in his leg; we were told that on his return to the states Michael sought out the parents of the dead boy to deliver their son’s purple heart. Rita said that she knows her brother is “caring and compassionate” and will remain so no matter what happens; he will, she said, “do the right thing.”

Michael himself was next. The shackles clinked audibly as he made his way to the stand and was sworn in, dressed not in a suit this time but prison orange. He actually seemed somewhat testy toward his own lawyer, who began by asking him about a former teacher who had come to visit him a few times since his arrest. “He believes you are remorseful, correct?” his lawyer asked. “Yes.” But when the lawyer asked Michael to clarify, he responded, “What do you want me to say?” Surely he had planned his statement. The moment felt tense. It did, however, allow the lawyer to respond: “Whatever is in your heart.”

What was in his heart was, according to Michael, the following (I’m paraphrasing somewhat): “As we all learn in life, you cannot take back what you do; you can’t travel back into the past and change what’s happened there. Sometimes the paths you choose aren’t the right ones, and you make mistakes; but that doesn’t change who you are. I can’t begin to explain how I feel about what I’ve done. It’s with a heavy heart that I tell you I cannot justify my actions, have no excuses. But I won’t change. I won’t become ‘negative,’ even in prison, which I hear is a pretty unpleasant place. Some people don’t look for the positive in these kinds of situations, they let the system turn them into something they aren’t. I know who I am, I know what I am. I am a good person. That won’t change.”

Judge: are you remorseful?
Michael (tearing up): Yes. When you take a life you can’t take it back. People wish they could change the past (etc, etc.) but the best thing I can do to “make up for that mistake is to be a better person than I was.”

Darcie Winkle then called on Mara Miller, the only witness to take the stand on Don’s behalf. Some of Don’s supporters were under the impression that there would be other witnesses, or that prepared statements (from family members or friends) would be read, but that didn’t happen. I had assumed that one needed to be asked to testify for Don, but it seems that we were meant to volunteer. I was saddened to realize that Mara was the one person who had done so. Luckily, she read from a well-prepared written statement that covered most all of the bases (she will likely post some or all of that statement to this site, so only highlights appear below).

• Don was not vindictive, and we mustn’t be, either. Don must have cared very deeply for Michael Griffin to have become so close to him, and, she added, to have been so thoroughly hoodwinked by him.
• We cannot forget that the crime was “unusually vicious” and that Michael remains “very dangerous to others”: as his own friends testified, this act was “out of character” for him, which makes him “exceptionally dangerous”; who can say what might set him off the next time, or whether he is capable of doing the same kind of thing again?
• Do not forget that Don is the victim here. And he was, at the time of his death, emotionally and physically vulnerable. Mara said that she and Don often talked about the things that worried Don, bothered him or made him angry; the long and short of it is that Don was the one person proven to be non-adversarial here, a gentle soul who strived to follow the teachings of Martin Luther King and Buddhism, and who had a personal distaste for confrontational encounters. He didn’t want Mara defending him, she said, even after finding himself at the receiving end of racist behavior at the hands of mutual acquaintances.
• Don hated rejection. He would not have had sex with anyone who resisted. He would have gotten out of any situation if he felt the other person(s) involved were unwilling or uninterested.
• Ella Torrey, Don’s “adoptive” mother—a woman, now in her eighties, who took an early interest in Don, helping him get into good schools, into college, someone who spoke to Don daily until his death—told Mara to say that she “loved Don as one of [her] own children, and remains proud of his extraordinary achievements.” Ella has lost two children already; Don’s death made a third.
• Lastly, Mara began to discuss the impact Don’s death had on the Bloomington community, and on the LGBT community in particular, describing the anxieties caused by homophobia in general and acts of homophobic violence specifically. Can people kill with impunity gay or black men who scare them? she asked. At this point the defense objected that this was no place for “soapbox” lectures on cultural politics, and after he repeated the word “soapbox” several times for dramatic emphasis, the judge agreed (the prosecution did not, but were overruled). Mara was supposed to limit herself to describing how Don’s death affected her “personally,” the defense argued; the judge said that she cannot use the sentence to “send a message to a community.” Mara concluded with a brief discussion of the loss to the literary community, who will not get to read the books he never finished and never wrote.

At this point the legal language got a bit murky. Someone named “Ms. Anderson” was mentioned by the defense as having proposed a sentencing recommendation (we weren’t told what it was). The prosecution, led by Darcie Winkle, argued for the sentence as defined by the State, a “minimum presumptive” sentence of 55 years. Winkle reminded the judge of the aggravating circumstances: delinquent behavior in Michael’s past (unclear what this was) that, though minor, was still a factor; but most importantly, the “manner” and extreme “heinousness” of the murder itself, with 22 stab wounds, four of them possibly fatal, defensive wounds on Don’s hands, Don’s nearly-severed finger.

The judge then went through both the mitigating and aggravating circumstances once again, speaking directly to Michael. She listed out several more in the first category than in the second, even saying at one point that she believed that Don’s severed finger and hand wounds were consistent with Michael’s testimony of what happened—in other words, that they were wounds Don got by grabbing Michaels’ knife rather than by trying to fight him off (!). She implied that since Michael’s juvenile delinquencies were “minor” they too counted as mitigating circumstances (I found this extremely hard to swallow; can anyone explain?). She said she believed that Michael “probably” suffered from an “emotional disorder or disturbance” since returning from Iraq, adding, it “appears you may have substance abuse problems.” Apparently the judge’s own sensibilities on such matters turn them from unproven possibilities into mitigating circumstances (not sure why). She also spoke at length of the mitigating circumstance of Michael’s “honorable service to his country,” his military career, his purple heart.

The sentence came down to this: the minimum sentence possible was 45 years (taking mitigating circumstances into account), the maximum (with aggravation) 65 years, with 55 as the ordinary sentence given. The judge sentenced Michael to 55 years, with 5 suspended for drug/alcohol rehab and/or therapies necessary for re-entry into society. Here’s where I failed to understand exactly what happened: is the sentence reduced 5 years based on the understanding that Michael will be ordered to seek treatment (at the end of, or during, incarceration), and if so, why 5 years? Is he being ordered to seek 5 years of treatment? What does it mean to say that the “probationary term is appropriate on release for treatment,” and is this a term of 5 years? Like I said, I wasn’t quite clear on this. But Michael was sentenced to 50 years.

The judge then reminded Michael of his automatic right to appeal the court’s decision within 30 days, first to the Court of Appeals and then to the IN Supreme Court. Michael stated that he would appeal. The judge was still talking to Michael and his lawyer as the prosecution, and everyone else, began shuffling without fanfare out of the courtroom.

If I might be allowed my own “soapbox” moment, I would like to add that it continues to dishearten me every time I am reminded of how much emphasis was throughout this ordeal placed on something called “the personal.” That is: when Don first died, we were advised to mourn not collectively but privately, discreetly; when the trial began, we were assured by community leaders that “Don’s friends” would be in attendance, on the assumption (one assumes) that this is all one should expect; when Mara attempted to describe the larger impact of Don’s death on groups and individuals who did not know him personally, yet were and are affected by his killing, she was reminded (and the judge agreed) that this was no place to discuss such matters, that she should testify only to her own private grief. I suppose in the last instance there may have been legal reasons for making that call. Yet I would urge anyone who reads this blog, and who thinks, now or later on, about Don’s death and life, to remember what that celebrated thing called “community” is for: it is for showing up for people who are not your friends; it is for turning out even when the cause isn’t personally threatening to you and yours; it is for coalition-building, for finding and seeking out common ground with those who are not our mirror images, not our heroes and anointed saints, those we may never know, sometimes those we do not much like. It is for remembering that in order to be greater than the sum of our parts we must do what we can, when we can, for people without membership in our inner circles. There is tremendous value in the “impersonal.” It is called “community”: a thing most worth being a part of in those times when the losses grieved for and defended against are not merely our own.


8 comments on “Sentencing

  1. Alyce Miller
    May 23, 2011

    Michael Griffin will serve his sentence according to the “good behavior credit” formula, as you describe above. If they haven’t already, DOC (Department of Corrections) will evaluate him and determine if he requires counseling or substance abuse treatment, which I think anyone with a brain is going to agree he needs, but then so do so many offenders with drug and alcohol and psychological issues, and our so-called justice system is not designed to handle the numbers. So who knows? At the end of his sentence, Michael will be placed on 5 years of probation. Should he violate the terms of his probation he might, at the discretion of the judge (and certainly depending on what has been violated), be returned to prison to serve out the remaining years (of the 5).

  2. Josh
    May 30, 2011

    Thank you, admin2, for this informative and moving essay.

  3. Jason
    June 14, 2011

    Thanks for the report.

  4. Jianda Monique
    July 6, 2011

    I very much appreciate this update, this stirs up so many emotions–I can only barely begin imagine how you and the community feel having known him. Thank you very much for sharing this.

  5. sunny
    July 6, 2011

    I hope Don’s next-of-kin applies for compensation from the state’s violent crime victims fund–it may not be much compensation for the loss of this man, but it is something.

    I wholeheartedly agree with the poster’s definition of the role of “community”; and truly wish people had turned out to witness the sentencing and let the court know that this man and his work were meaningful and valued.

    When I first read a short news story about the verdict, I applauded it in comments on that website. Another commenter responded, wistfully arguing that he wished Griffin had been convicted of voluntary manslaughter instead. I pointed out some of the facts of the case which mitigated against a finding of “sudden heat”; and this man responded with a comment that saddened and appalled me. He said something to the effect of “When a man is caught having sex with another man; the only 2 choices are extreme coverup or suicide”. I was left speechless.
    We’ve come so far; but we have so far to go.

  6. Edris Cooper
    July 25, 2011

    There is NO legal reason during sentencing for such silencing. In fact, this is the most important part of her testimony – what the sentencing’s impact will have on the community.

    Addtionally, I am apalled at the university’s suppresion of the matter and lack of advocacy for justice on Don’s behalf. He had such a positive attitude towards IU and I feel he was betrayed by them.

  7. Dave
    October 14, 2011

    Thank you for maintaining this site. I barely knew Don – I took one class taught by him at Macalester in the early 90s – but I know he didn’t deserve to be murdered. I’m glad the man who murdered him will be away from society for a long time.

  8. jianda
    December 3, 2011

    Speechless…no words. Thanks again for making this information available to everyone and for doing so with such an exceptional lens and perspective.

Comments are closed.


This entry was posted on May 17, 2011 by in Don Belton.
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