Norman stood at the podium only a few feet from the elevated bench. In loose-fitting green shirt and matching trousers, he looked like a health care worker in hospital scrubs. Shackled hands, resting on the podium, and the sheriff's deputies standing behind to his left and right, made it abundantly clear he was a prisoner.
From the moment Judge Farina strode into the courtroom, ascended the bench and took his seat facing Norman, he emphasized his power to have a huge impact on Norman's life. "Today, we are at a crossroads. According to the sentencing guidelines, I can sentence you to seven years in state prison."
But that isn't what the Judge wanted to do. "We've had several good conversations over these past months," he continued. "I have appreciated the candor of your speech and the sincerity of your beliefs. And I have wide discretion in a case such as this, wide discretion. I can waive the sentencing guidelines entirely and release you. I'm prepared to do that. All I ask is that you do not go back inside that military recruiting office. You can express your views as you wish in other places, but not there."
Norman had precipitated his most recent arrest, on August 1, 2011, by sitting in the doorway of the Lancaster recruiting office. Because he had been arrested there once before - in April 2009 - and was under court order not to return, the second incident was charged as 3rd degree criminal trespass, a felony.
Norman had pled guilty, but he had no prior felonies on his record and only one prior misdemeanor. He had already served nearly ten months in the local jail while the wheels of the justice system slowly turned. And according to Judge Farina, throughout the process, Norman had been respectful to everyone associated with the criminal justice system, from the police officers who had arrested him to the court personnel. Now, May 21st, the time had come for sentencing.
"So will you stop?" Judge Farina asked. "Will you say to me that you will not go back there?"
Norman spoke for several minutes in reply.
As I sat, purposefully blocking the prime entryway of the U.S. military recruitment office in Lancaster Pennsylvania, I was simply and pointedly saying my conscience-based and seemingly small "no" to our society's love of extreme violence, racism, bigotry and poverty-production. It is my ever-increasing love for our Creator and for my fellow man that fuels and drives my choices. I cannot in good conscience agree to your request, as to do so would be to dishonor our Creator and all of mankind. I have not and will not change my mind!
Our Creator-my redeemer and life's great love -- teaches that "the one desiring to be greatest will be the greatest servant; that the one desiring the most power will give all power away, as it is given!" I have purposefully chosen my lot in life; I am where I wish to be and with whom I most desire to be. I am an utterly fulfilled man, living out our Creator's destiny for me. Don't cry for me!
As I cannot in good conscience follow the governing authority of the land into sin, by ceasing to include purposeful acts of civil disobedience against tyranny-protecting laws and practices in my protestations, I will gladly accept and max-out today's chosen sentence.
Judge Farina tried yet again. "I'm perplexed by your decision when you know so clearly what the consequences will be. I respect your views but I reject your method. You cannot block the entrance to that office; you cannot break the law. And your message isn't going to get very far while you sit in prison. Again, all I ask is for your word that you won't block the recruiting station doorway."
"No, I won't make that promise."
And so the Honorable Judge Louis Farina sentenced Norman E. Lowry to prison for one-to-seven years. "You'll have the keys to your own cell," the Judge said, "Each year you will be considered for parole, and knowing what a model prisoner you are, you'll be released if you give your word to stay away from recruiting offices. Whether you serve one year or seven years is totally up to you."
With that, Judge Farina dismissed Norman. The deputies escorted him from the courtroom.
With whom do our sympathies lie in this story? With the judge, who wanted to use his power to benefit Norman but didn't? Or with Norman, the dissenter who refused to bind himself to a promise his conscience might ask him to break? A strong case can be made for each.
Either way, there is an overriding irony at work here. Rather than risk a recurrence of Norman sitting in the doorway of the U.S. military recruitment office, a sympathetic judge with broad discretion sentenced a nonviolent dissenter to up to seven years in state prison. If Norman serves the full term, the cost to taxpayers will be upwards of $300,000, all to keep Norman from again sitting in that doorway.
It is an absurd result, one that could have been avoided had the judge been willing to exercise his vaunted discretion a bit more creatively. And it left me with the feeling that it was Norman, and not Judge Farina, who defined the choices and exercised the power that day in the court.
Norman will find no consolation in this. He is grieving the fact that he will be transferred from the county jail, where he has made many friends and found a mission among "the least of these," to a state prison where he knows no one. Yet his conscience remains unshackled. And he goes forward confident that the One who gave him a ministry in Lancaster jail will put him to work yet again in the next prison that is his home.