Aurora mother with background in criminal justice says system failed her daughter

Teresa Grimes spoke softly when she finally got her chance to stand at the podium to tell the court about her daughter, Destiny.

Before she was shot and killed, Destiny Litt-McGhee was the easy child, she was beloved, she was smart, Teresa told the silent courtroom. Destiny taught herself to play guitar and piano and graduated with honors from Manual High School. Destiny was Teresa’s youngest child and the only one who called her “mommy.”

Teresa wanted the judge, the attorneys and the man who killed Destiny to finally know who was at the center of this court case that had dragged on for two years. As she spoke her voice rose in anger.

Teresa told the judge that she spent six years and tens of thousands of dollars getting degrees in criminal justice, that she worked for the Colorado Judicial Branch as a juvenile probation officer. She understood how the system works — she sat in courtrooms every day.

And yet Teresa could not believe that the man who killed her daughter had been found guilty of manslaughter instead of murder, that the maximum prison sentence he’d face was six years. That instead of a semblance of peace, of closure, the court process had left her in more pain.

“Where is the justice here?” Teresa asked, her husband Troy standing behind her in support. “Shame on you! Shame on the jurors! Shame on the public defenders!”

In television shows, in movies, in everyday conversation, the criminal justice system is framed as something to help victims and their loved ones, to help them find closure. The Colorado Judicial Branch’s mission statement says that one of the court system’s goals is to “facilitate victim and community reparation.”

But that’s not how it works for everyone. Dozens of families who lost a loved one to violence churn through Denver’s courts every year. Some, like Teresa, are ground up by the machinations of the system that’s supposed to work on their behalf.

“We’re told the court doors are going to open after (the trial) and we’ll walk through them and everything will be better, justice has been served,” said Patricia Wenskunas, founder and CEO of the Crime Survivors Resource Center. “But that’s not reality.”

Nothing went particularly wrong with Destiny’s case, her family said. The police and prosecutors and victim’s advocates treated them with kindness and respect. The shooter was convicted, though on lesser charges. Everyone did their respective jobs.

But the trial itself — and the grind of the court process that led up to it — left Teresa more raw than before. She listened to the shooter’s defense attorney try to cast doubt on Destiny’s character. She listened for six days as attorneys and witnesses described the details of that day. Destiny was not in that courtroom, Teresa said, and those who knew her best couldn’t speak on her behalf during the trial. At sentencing, even the judge acknowledged there was nothing she could do to restore the family.

Instead of healing, Destiny’s killing and the court process that followed unmoored Teresa from a career in and adjacent to the criminal justice system that had spanned more than a decade. Even before she spoke during that October sentencing hearing, Teresa wondered whether she could go back to her work. Four months later, she resigned.

“To witness something like that up front just tore me down again,” she said. “I lost faith in the unjust system.”

As she finished her testimony during the October sentencing hearing, Teresa sang a song that reminded her of Destiny.

“You are my sunshine, my only sunshine,” Teresa sang as she ended her testimony.

Her voice wavered, she fell into Troy’s arms, and she sobbed.

“Nobody had it right”

Destiny spoke quietly but loved big. As a kid, she was the peacemaker among her siblings, as well as the kid Teresa could pressure into tattling.

In high school, she played basketball, softball and joined the cheerleading squad. She was the sister her siblings turned to for advice. All of her friends’ parents saw her as one of their own. She was a caregiver — the only grandchild who would take care of her grandma’s feet. When Teresa went back to college, Destiny tutored her in math.

She showed up early every Thanksgiving to help her mom chop vegetables, her family said in interviews. She was self-conscious about her lanky height, the size of her hands and feet, but Teresa loved her for exactly those things.

“She was just me all over again,” Teresa said. “She loved hard, she worked hard, she learned to work for what she wanted.”

“She was really coming into herself before she died,” Troy Grimes said.

But Destiny’s personality and legacy was not honored during the criminal proceedings against the man who killed her, Teresa and Troy said.

Destiny died Aug. 9, 2019, at age 23 after a neighbor got into an argument with Destiny’s husband and shot them both, according to the shooter’s arrest affidavit. Destiny’s husband survived the shooting, though he died last year in an unrelated incident.

At trial, much of the testimony centered around the conduct of the shooter and Destiny’s husband, whether they had drugs on them or not. The shooter’s defense attorney tried to call Destiny’s character into question, which enraged her family. It felt like a drug trial, Teresa said, instead of a trial about the death of someone’s child.

“Day by day we had to sit there and listen to these stories about who they thought she was,” Teresa said. “Nobody had it right. But all we could do was sit there and listen to these stories, leaning on each other to hold each other up.”

Prosecutors charged the shooter with first-degree murder, but the jury acquitted him of that charge and instead found him guilty of manslaughter.

First-degree murder charges require prosecutors to convince the jury that the defendant intended to kill the victim, or acted with such extreme indifference to the value of human life that he knew or should’ve known his act created a grave risk of death. With a manslaughter charge, jurors only have to find that the defendant acted recklessly, a lower legal standard.

The verdict stung.

Then Teresa and her family sat through the sentencing hearing and listened to the shooter’s defense attorney describe him as a “great” and “honest” man with a “bright future ahead of him.”

The judge sentenced the shooter to six years in prison — the maximum allowed — and three years of parole, ordering him to pay $7,500 in restitution. The automatic sentence for a first-degree murder conviction is life in prison without parole.

“There is no sentence that restores you,” Denver District Court Judge Jennifer Torrington said as she announced her sentence, after acknowledging the Grimes family’s pain.

Teresa was not naive about the criminal justice system — she’d always been interested in it. She wanted to be a police officer and tested for positions with the Denver Police Department, but she was a single mother with children in grade school at the time and she couldn’t make the training and testing schedule work. She earned an associate degree in juvenile corrections, a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice administration and in 2021 started a master of science in psychology.

Instead of policing, she worked in safety with Denver Public Schools for 15 years and then with Denver Juvenile Probation for five years. She loved the work and her coworkers.

But in February, she resigned her job with juvenile probation.

“It’s all wrong,” she said. “We have it all wrong.”

“The way you cry is different”

Most of Teresa’s family doesn’t like to think about the trial, about the whole court process.

“I know that this process is meant to be restorative, that the victims are meant to have their voices heard,” Troy told the judge. “None of that means anything. You can’t give us justice. Neither this court nor any of the people in it was designed to do that in the first place.”

Some victims do find the court process healing, said Wenskunas of the Crime Survivors Resource Center. It can help bring closure, help sew up a tiny part of the rip of the loss. Every victim is different, and definitions of justice vary, she said.

“But when it doesn’t go smoothly, it’s like throwing acid on a wound,” Wenskunas said. “It can be a system that revictimizes the victim altogether.”

Since the sentencing and leaving her probation job, Teresa has been spending more time healing. Almost three years have passed and Destiny’s loss is felt every day. But Teresa is back from the brink. The loss is never easy, but becomes manageable, she said.

“The justice system is what it is,” she said in March. “Our healing is up to us.”

Teresa found a new job with the Struggle of Love Foundation, a nonprofit organization in far northeast Denver that provides a bevy of community services. As the nonprofit’s youth mental health program director, Teresa helps connect young people to mental health services. She’s maintained a 4.0 GPA in her master’s degree studies.

“When you lose your child, oh man,” she said. “Outside is different. The way you talk to people is different. The way you cry is different. The way you sleep.”

For months after Destiny was killed, Teresa was angry at God. She cursed at him. Everything was a void, and she felt herself slipping into it.

But her family held her tight. She realized that if the legal system couldn’t give her justice, she’d have to find it inside herself. She re-learned to pray. She re-learned to smile.

In the evenings now, Teresa sits down to meditate in her room, the one where the window faces west. As the sun sets, its last golden rays lie down on her face.

The warmth feels like Destiny.

Source: Read Full Article