What Justice Means to Me
By: Anna-Sigga Nicolazzi
Justice: A Broad Concept with Many Definitions
If asked to define what justice means to you, what would you say? To many people, justice is a product of a society that values fairness and fair treatment of everyone irrespective of their race, gender, or religion. Justice indicates that laws are applied equally to all, and indeed, justice is at the heart of our legal system. When a life is wrongfully taken, the victim’s family deserves both justice and closure.
This raises another question: What, exactly, is closure? Is it an endpoint at which grief is no longer as all-consuming, or when the survivors accept that their loved one is truly gone? Does it come automatically when a conviction is achieved? And without a conviction, can a family ever attain closure? Perhaps at its root, closure is more of a process — something that begins when justice is achieved and continues throughout the remainder of the family members’ lives, changing shape and evolving much as grief itself does.
For a former prosecutor such as myself, justice is a goal — something to pursue. I believe the concept of justice can often mean different things. Although justice always involves accountability and fairness, it can manifest in different ways depending on the case. In some cases, justice might require harsh punishment, while in others, it may call for leniency. Because no two cases are alike, justice doesn’t look the same in every situation.
However, I do believe that justice should always be fair — which isn’t to say the outcomes of cases should be alike. Prosecutors must always consider the factors unique to each case. Is the evidence irrefutable? Were there mitigating factors at play?
In my experience, victims’ families all have different views of justice and closure. However, it’s nearly universal that families need answers to move forward. They also need to know that the killer will be held accountable, and will not be free to kill again. And although a family affected by homicide can never have their loved ones back, justice may help them move forward.
Achieving Justice for Victims and Families
Throughout my career, the pursuit of justice has been what drives me. I would like to think that achieving the conviction of a killer can allow the victim’s family to begin picking up the pieces of their shattered lives. Every case I have handled stands out to me in different ways. However, one case, which coupled a hate crime with an unfortunate death, clearly illustrates this driving principle.
Michael Sandy was a 29-year-old man who was targeted specifically because he was gay. Four young men, after having found Michael in an online chat room, lured him to a Brooklyn beach to rob him. Michael tried to get away, and the men chased him onto the nearby highway. Michael was hit by a car and killed.
After this senseless tragedy, all four men were arrested for the hate crime. It was charged as a hate crime, not because of evidence of actual ‘hate’ but rather becuase the assailants targeted Michael specifically because he was gay. One became a witness for the prosecution under a cooperation agreement, one pleaded guilty, and two stood trial and were convicted. Throughout this process, Michael’s parents had to bear the burden of the knowledge that Michael, their only child, was targeted simply because he was gay. Their loss was tremendous, and although it is one that has never healed, his parents found a small measure of peace knowing the perpetrators were held accountable and the reason for Michael’s death was acknowledged.
Another notable case was that of George Weber, an ABC news radio personality who was murdered under circumstances that would have caused George embarrassment and resulted in sensationalist media stories. This only amplified the family’s pain. After the killer’s first trial ended in a mistrial, the second resulted in a conviction. Afterward, Weber’s brother-in-law spoke for the family, saying “I forgive you. I have no hatred.” I believe the conviction granted the family closure and allowed them to begin to heal and mourn George’s loss properly.
There have been many other cases that have stood out to me over the years, such as the case of a young lady’s ex-boyfriend who murdered her mother, blaming the woman for the breakup. The young lady had to deal with considerable survivor’s guilt, but the conviction helped her work toward inner peace.
It is equal parts painful and inspiring to know that victims’ families relied on me to attain justice for them. The weight of responsibility motivated me, and the families’ inner strength inspired me. Although their loved ones can never be brought back, justice and closure can allow the healing process to move forward.
When Crime Hits Home
Growing up, I especially looked forward to seeing my adult cousin at family gatherings. She always had a smile on her face and a kind word to say. She was the quintessential cool, “grown-up” cousin whom I looked up to.
One day, when I was nine years old, I went outside to find my parents incredibly distraught. They hugged me and told me that my cousin had been murdered. She was only 25, with her whole life ahead of her. In the days to come, my parents tried to shield me from the details, but I ultimately saw an article in a newspaper at a friend’s house one day. I discovered that my cousin had been sexually assaulted, strangled and stabbed.
Our whole family was devastated. We have always been a close family, and support each other, but it was — and remains — an incredibly awful time in my family’s life.
The killer was arrested and convicted. He was sentenced to 25 years to life (and has now been released after serving his sentence). As a child, I was shielded from the the trial itself. When I think of that time and the many years that followed, it’s my aunt and uncle’s pain that stands out most. It radiated from them always, throughout the remainder of their lives. In the years that followed the trial, they stoically went on with the business of life. Whenever I saw them, they would smile and ask me about my own life. Yet, they quietly seemed to be shells of their former selves.
That was my first experience with the pain and devastation a homicide causes. My cousin’s killer didn’t just take away her life; he forever drained all joy from her parents. When people discover that I’ve been personally affected by homicide, they often think that was the reason for my career choices, but this isn’t the case. It’s the victims and families who have motivated me.
However, I do believe that my early experiences with grief and wrongful death have helped shape my perspective about what loved ones go through, and to become comfortable interacting with others whom it has affected. It’s also part of why I choose to focus on the victims and their families, rather than the killers in my work, both for TV and audio.
When the System Fails
I believe in our criminal justice system. I believe that in most homicide cases, the outcome is appropriate. Of course, it’s not a flawless system, and sometimes, killers do walk free or are never apprehended. Juries are instructed to convict only if there is no “reasonable doubt” about the defendant’s guilt. This means that even if the prosecutor has strong evidence, it’s possible the defendant will be acquitted.
An acquittal is always a difficult burden to bear — not only for the prosecutor, but more acutely for the victim’s family. Perhaps most importantly, the victim never receives justice. When a killer cannot be held accountable, there is also the possibility they will kill again. Although justice can be elusive, I do sincerely hope that families of victims are able to work toward closure.
Justice may have many faces, but in the end, I believe it’s primarily about accountability. By highlighting victims and their families in my media productions, I hope to honor them and their lost loved ones. Follow me on social media to explore more quests for justice.
Anna-Sigga Nicolazzi is a seasoned NYC homicide prosecutor with over two decades of experience as a prosecutor, Bureau Chief, and Chief of Trials with the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office. She is also the founder of Forseti Media, co-executive producer and host of the TV series, True Conviction, and creator and co-host of the true-crime podcast, Anatomy of Murder. With a passion for victim advocacy, Anna-Sigga brings attention to criminal law and the varying paths to justice involved.