Olujimi “Jimi” Blakeney, 26, last week received the maximum sentence of sixty-one years and five months for his drive-by shooting in July 2010 that killed Lisa Melancon.
I had not heard that Jimi had killed anyone until I read about his conviction last July in The News Tribune, and so I was scrambling to learn the facts of the case when I attended his sentencing hearing on August 3.
In the process I also learned more about Jimi, a young man I had counseled ten years ago in a residential facility for foster kids administered by the Gateways for Youth and Families of Tacoma, and I was surprised by what I discovered.
First, I found out that Jimi has a father. When I was Jimi’s therapist, I didn’t think that he had any family. I had heard from the other residents that Jimi had an older brother in prison, and the therapist who had worked with Jimi before me indicated that he was an abandoned child that DSHS had been working with since he was 10 years old. Jimi himself told me about an “auntie” that he had lived with for a short period of time, and he was certainly fond of her.
Nevertheless, during the early stages of the hearing a middle-aged man was escorted out of the visitors’ area. He was loud and provocative, perhaps drunk, and clearly not a happy observer. Later, Ms. Melancon’s family and a couple of cops told me the guy was Jimi’s father.
Jimi has a father? Where was he when Jimi was in foster care?
The father was accompanied by a woman of indeterminate age, maybe 30, and the same folks told me that she was Jimi’s sister.
Wow, Jimi has family!
The surprise was too large for me to ponder sitting in the courtroom, but now I wonder:
How could they let their kid sit in a foster home and cost the county 70 grand a year? How does that happen?
But back in the courtroom I was trying to absorb all the dynamics: who was the victim’s family, how can I get a good picture of Jimi, do I need a media clearance from the cops?
My education had started at the elevators in the City-County Building where the hearing took place.
Standing in a circle were about six women looking stern, and wearing matching “T” shirts that said “Lisa Marie Melancon – Forever in our Hearts: 8/15/69– 7/22/10.”
I walked up to them and was rebuffed. A tall, open-faced fellow was nearby and he was wearing an identical shirt. I introduced my self. He was Joe Melancon, husband of the deceased Lisa.
“I’m doing better,” he said, responding to my query of how he was coping. “I’ve had counseling, but it’s still tough. I’m getting through it, though, it’s been over a year.”
When I pressed to find out what had happened on his front porch when Jimi and a few buddies came by to settle a dispute, Joe’s demeanor shifted.
“I don’t want to discuss any of the details. I’ve spent the last year going over all of that in court – that was enough.”
In chatting with the others, and then mingling with a second group of supports, I learned that Lisa was “a wonderful person” and had been married to Joe for eight years. In addition, she had a son from a prior relationship.
I was also told that Melancon was pronounced: mel-ahn-Sahn; and later the deputy prosecuting attorney made a determined effort to enunciate the name properly.
Further, Lisa was clearly a beloved woman, and her loss to the family was devastating. Joe called her a “substantive woman who cared about her community” and others later testified that she was the “glue” that held the family together.
Room 250 of Superior Court, where the sentencing was held, is a serious place. The visitors are separated from the actual courtroom by a sound-proof, and presumably bullet-proof, glass wall. Testimony is piped in via a PA system. Visitors sit on hard wooden benches, much like the pews I remember from Catholic Church when I was growing up.
Three Pierce County Sheriff’s Deputies guarded the visitors and room 250. Sgt Jesus Villahermosa recited a lengthy list of do’s and don’ts to us, and he was quite firm when he later removed Jimi’s father.
Jimi looked older than I expected when he was escorted into the courtroom by corrections officials. His face was hard, and he looked thoroughly toughened by his seven months in confinement during his trial. Prior, he had had a few years in prison for small, non-violent felonies.
As he walked, I could see that he was wearing leg irons and wrist restraints.
Jimi sat next to his attorney, Michael Clarke, who had earlier told me in a phone conversation that Jimi had been a pleasure to work with. Clarke argued unsuccessfully for a reduction in charges do to the lack of any overtly violent crime in Jimi’s past.
I sensed the politics of the case were overwhelming. Jimi was like a “throw away kid” who could be used for maximum advantage – the headlines were certain to make the county officials look good – and I wondered how the victim’s family would respond.
Would they want blood? Would they call out for revenge?
They didn’t. The family certainly wanted justice, but the exact nuance of what they wanted came out in statements to the court and in later commentaries. In short, they required Jimi to get the maximum sentence, but weren’t mean-spirited.
Jimi was silent but vigilant during the entire one hour hearing. He looked about the entire courtroom and eyed everyone and everything. When our eyes met, which was often, I couldn’t hold his gaze and I don’t know why. Maybe it was too much intimacy.
Regardless, when we did look at each other I saw Jimi’s hard edge melt away, and in his eyes I saw the kid I used to know. He softened, and he almost looked scared. He looked open, too. Then, I looked away.
I like to think that he was appreciative that I was there. I had written a letter to him just after his conviction, telling him I would be at his sentencing. I also asked him to put me on his visitor’s list and to let me know when I could see him in prison. To date, I haven’t heard back.
At the hearing, Lisa’s parents spoke, along with her brother Vinney.
Kathy, the mom, evoked biblical passages and was tearful; and the father Manuel was grieving and although judgmental a times, he seemed to grasp the big picture of bureaucratic justice.
Vinney, however, was business-like and pragmatic. Not only did he address the judge on what he thought was a proper sentence, calling for a maximum penalty, but he also seemed to lecture Jimi on proper social behavior when one commits murder.
Vinney told the court that he expected Jimi to apologize, obliquely challenging Jimi to “do the right thing.”
But Vinney received only silence. He told the court that if he had heard Jimi say at some point early in the case that he was sorry, then he would be advocating for a reduced sentence. Without it though, he needed Jimi to receive the maximum sentence.
Such a declaration told me that Vinney had never dealt with anyone like Jimi before. My guys never apologized for anything because apologies were like a surrender, a loss of power. In the world my guys lived in, apologies did not make anyone feel closer, they actually de-stabilized relationships and made my guys feel diminished and more threatened.
That’s the nature of fellows with “Reactive-Attachment Disorder.” “RAD kids” is what we called them: children who can not emotionally bond with others.
At the residence, the staff pushed the kids all the time to make “good choices” and to take responsibility for their actions. Intellectually they understood what we were talking about, but emotionally they could not deliver very often.
As a result, I tried to get everyone to agree to a policy of “acknowledgment” in resolving disputes. It was somewhat successful. The aggressor could still save some face, and the victim could receive some justice.
Now, however, Jimi couldn’t give Vinney a thing. Not a word – not an apology, an acknowledgment, or even a glimmer of recognition that he was involved any way, even if it meant he had to serve a lot more time in prison. 30, 40, 60 years in prison, what did it mean to Jimi? Further, in Jimi’s eyes, what was fair? What was just?
I have no idea.
However, Vinney was not blind to these psychological issues, and in a post-sentencing gathering with officials from the Prosecutor’s Office and the media, he articulated his frustration.
“They all say that they’re victims, caught up in the system and that they don’t have a chance.”
Regardless, the family was keenly aware of the imperfections of the system they were in – the judicial one – and applauded the prosecutory team at the close of the post-sentencing meeting.
“It’s the greatest amount of justice that can be gotten,” Lisa’s father told the assembled.
© 2011 the Mountain News – WA