In the First Degree

Had the bullet’s trajectory veered half a foot to the right,
It might not have extinguished the life of this innocent youth
Who had just turned eighteen. The Grand Jury moved fast to indict
The young killer. Detectives parsed statements to get at the truth.

Two years later the trial was set so that Justice might reign.
We were summoned to sift through which evidence should be believed
Grimly trapped in a jury box fighting off anger and pain
And despair for the victim, his family, all those who grieved.

But our mercy was limited. What could we feel for the thug
Who was charged with this crime as a man although only sixteen?
He had bought and sold contraband arms. He loved crime like a drug.
He was cocky though only in high school and bantamweight lean.

We were told many times that his innocence must be presumed
But the facts made it clear that this conscienceless boy coldly killed.
He was itching for power. He boasted his foes were all doomed.
With a loaded three-eighty he damn well could do what he willed.

There were eighteen young witnesses, each of them now linked by hate.
There were sheriffs. The coroner. Diagrams, all we could bear
About teenage anatomy. DNA. Perjury. Fate.
And we learned about malice—not words, but a cold, fishlike stare.

It was first degree murder—a judgment which could not console.
How the victim’s poor grandmother wailed when the verdict was read!
She had raised her one grandson from birth. How could this make her whole?
On conviction the murderer’s eyes didn’t blink. They seemed dead

As if bored by the news that he’ll live out his life behind bars.
There were cameras rolling, reporters. The judge thanked us all.
Then the marshal escorted us out of harm’s way to our cars.
I went home. Much too weary to weep, I just stared at the wall.

In my heart I believe God’s Commandment that Thou Shalt Not Kill.
But I’m shaken. I know now of people who can. And who will.




a rondeau

I never thought about the laws
I often broke. But I sure pause
To think that unattractive snitch
Betrayed me! She was filthy rich
And well-played passion hid my flaws.

I worked the handsome smile that draws
The lonely. When a cold heart thaws,
Gold flows. That she might raise a hitch
__I never thought.

I stole her cash. She bared her claws.
My looks are worthless now because
Of charges pressed. A novel switch:
My freedom stolen by that witch!
Well, my whole life I’ve clutched at straws.
__I never thought.




That I inflicted people so with pain
Is now the cross I bear. No smirking smile
Or smugness rules me now. I pace. I stain
These concrete walls with tears—and for awhile
I’m numb—until dark recollections haunt me.
At night I hear their agony and fears,
The lives destroyed, the ghosts which bleed and taunt me!
Compelled now to endure these endless years
I must eschew serenity in death,
Accept my guilt and shun all soulless lies.
But why should I now value my own breath?
Forever caged, is aging even wise?
God knows. I’ll read and pray. Before I burn,
There’s much about this life that I would learn.



Brian Yapko is a lawyer who also writes poetry. He lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

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13 Responses

  1. Roy E. Peterson

    “In the First Degree” is a powerful juxtaposition of justice and those affected by life altering decisions. Being the lawyer you are, you must face such inescapable conclusions on virtually a daily basis, yet your humanity and feelings show through. “Regret” seems as though “I” is writing from the shoes of another person considering what happened and thinking “you” were in essence a victim, as well. “Redemption” almost seems it is more about regret. From my perspective performing a civic duty admirably is redemption enough! Rest well. You deserved and earned it!

    • Brian Yapko

      Thank you very much, Roy. What I was most impressed by when I sat on this jury was the “ripple effect” caused by this single homicide. A dead victim. A defendant who will now spend his life in jail. The mourning family of the victim. The wounded family of the defendant. The many percipient witnesses who are all scarred for life. The legal teams, the court personnel, we jurors, an entire community. The effects were/are quite widespread and profound — and all from one unnecessary act of violence. The “rest” part doesn’t come quite as easily as I would have hoped.

      The other two poems are quite unrelated other than that they address the theme of “crime and punishment.” It seemed worthwhile to explore various mindsets to crime and to being called to justice.

  2. Brian Yapko

    I should perhaps offer a brief note concerning the poem “In the First Degree.” This is one of my few autobiographical poems. I did indeed recently sit on the jury of a murder trial concerning a victim and a defendant who were both youths. After a truly harrowing two weeks of testimony, the trial did indeed result in a conviction of first degree murder.

    I wrote this poem in very strict anapestic pentameter in an effort to metrically convey out-of-control motion — akin, perhaps, to a runaway train. Although anapests, in lieu of iambs, makes it a strange read, this struck me as appropriate to the harrowing subject matter.

    The other two poems — essentially unrelated — concern the questions of crime, punishment and their effect on the crime-committing individual.

  3. Cynthia Erlandson

    “In the First Degree”, especially, is a profound re-telling of a traumatic experience — or rather, many people’s traumatic experiences, as seen from the eyes of a juror. All three show the writer’s ability to imagine himself in the minds of others. They are true to life and sobering. Great stuff, Brian.

    • Brian Yapko

      Cynthia, thank you for taking the time to read and comment on a poem I realize is challenging and not everyone’s cup of tea. I don’t often find the need to write about a personal experience but this one was truly unique. Thank you for the kind words and for understanding well what I was trying to achieve here.

  4. Margaret Coats

    Brian, you have built a great poem on juror angst. This could have been just about your experience, but as I read “In the First Degree,” I am impressed by the deftly analyzed experience of witnesses to the crime, and of those whose lives are changed by it. That means the criminal himself and victims such as the grandmother of the murdered youth–but you also reflect on the wider communal effect of what turns out to be a very lengthy process from crime to trial and beyond. Thus when you speak of what you learn in the final couplet, it is easy to imagine how your shock has already been absorbed by many others. These are profound insights about justice and the need for it, even when it cannot correct the baneful residue of crime. In fact, the poem approaches the worrisome topic of “social justice,” which often distorts both society and justice. Thanks for your truthful and incisive view.

    The two shorter poems, with much tougher viewpoints, also focus on real and necessary considerations about crime, and thus this group provokes serious thought on the subject.

    • Brian Yapko

      Margaret, I am deeply grateful for your comment and your support. As I just mentioned to Cynthia, I don’t often write autobiographically, but this was an experience that took me awhile to process and writing “In the First Degree” helped me to do just that. Yes, I hoped for this poem to be about more than my personal experience because as I lived with this case I saw how much one stupid action could change things for so many.

      On that final couplet, I do want to make one thing clear. I’m not pursuing a “social justice” agenda. This is not an anti-gun poem in any sense. I believe in the Second Amendment. That is why I was careful to note that this was an underage defendant who obtained a contraband weapon. I believe in the Second Amendment but not in minors carrying stolen weapons! That’s the distinction, and its a big one. No, my “social justice” concern is for criminals — especially murderers — to be brought to justice and taken off the streets.

      I’m glad you appreciated the other two poems. The rondeau was meant to address a petty criminal who just does the same thing over and over and over again until he’s finally charged. That’s why I chose the repetitions that are essential to the rondeau form. And I chose a sonnet form for a monster who actually sincerely looks into his conscience. Perhaps he was a drug addict who got sober. Perhaps he has found God in the confines of his prison cell. I don’t think it’s common, but it would not be the first time someone in prison finally found themselves.

      Thank you again, Margaret, for your attention to these admittedly challenging poems.

    • Margaret Coats

      By false social justice, I don’t mean the opposition to citizens bearing arms. I mean the numerous favors given to suspects and criminals who belong to perceived “victim groups.” These favors include prosecutors refusing to bring charges, zero bail, generous plea deals, light sentences, easy probation, and the media regularly attributing crime to social conditions, rather than to the acts of individuals. The political posturing becomes ridiculous when law and law enforcement are blamed for crime. Lawbreakers are excused as victims who have no control over what they do. But as you say, all this causes widespread and genuine social suffering. A suspect is innocent until proven guilty, but crime devastates society regardless of trials or verdicts. We have just heard Starbucks say they plan to close PROFITABLE business locations in major cities because Los Angeles, Portland, Seattle, Philadelphia, and others are not safe. In other words, rationally foreseen crime befouls our civilization and makes our economy worse. A major corporation can afford to move out, but what about mom-and-pop stores? I foresee a return to organized crime selling protection at whatever price they choose to charge.

      • Brian Yapko

        Thanks for clarifying that, Margaret. I couldn’t agree more. I was very glad to see the district attorneys in this case were tough as nails and hard on crime. There was none of the bleeding heart stuff you find in cities which are more liberal than Santa Fe. There are a lot of “social justice warriors” out there who make me ashamed to be a laywer. When it comes to dealing with crime issues and leniency for the defendant you will me find me to be on the far right of the spectrum for precisely all of the reasons that you stated. I have no use for prosecutors who won’t prosecute and I have little sympathy for criminals — especially recidivist criminals. And you’re right — so much of this crime is foreseeable and actually created by liberal policies. Who can say where it will end? The words “defund the police” still disgust me. I make a point of going to the police anywhere I see them to thank them for their service.

  5. Susan Jarvis Bryant

    Brian, what a potent, thought-provoking series on crime and punishment. Your autobiographical poem is particularly striking for the form (which works perfectly) and, more importantly, how you handle the shocking and sensitive subject matter. You manage to convey the sheer horror of murder “In the First Degree” with a vivid immediacy and a sensitivity that affords the reader an insight into the many aspects of this atrocity. I was struck by this heart-wrenching stanza:

    It was first degree murder—a judgment which could not console.
    How the victim’s poor grandmother wailed when the verdict was read!
    She had raised her one grandson from birth. How could this make her whole?
    On conviction the murderer’s eyes didn’t blink. They seemed dead…

    No matter how efficient the judicial system, no matter how fair the verdict, only the divine can remove the stain and the pain of evil here on Earth, and in this poem, the pain is palpable.

    The two adeptly crafted poems that follow leave plenty of food for thought. The repetition in the rondeau “Regret” works perfectly. I love the ambiguity of the title. I love how the victim of crime is the hard-done-by criminal – an attitude often embraced in these times.

    “Redemption” is the perfect poem to end this trio. One would like to think that the perpetrator of crime is haunted by their heinous deeds, looks inward for answers, and feels a remorse that leads to a path of enlightenment and forgiveness. This sonnet makes me think that is most certainly possible. As I’ve said before, Brian, you have a knack for breathing life into characters and touching the reader with portrayals that are perceptive, empathetic, and tangible. This sonnet has certainly reached out to me, as have all of these three magnificent works. Thank you!

    • Brian Yapko

      Thank you so much, Susan, for your detailed and generous comment! I’m glad you think the anapestic form works — it was both a challenge and a risk. I’m especially grateful for your bring the divine into this discussion. God’s judgment and mercy were always in the background in this poem, made explicit by the reference to the Ten Commandments. But, amazingly, in the course of the trial and deliberations no mention of the divine could not come into play lest this be deemed grounds for a mistrial. Imagine, the most important factor of all being completely ignored not only as irrelevant but as a constitutional negative!

      I’m also glad you picked up on the ironic title of “Regret” — the speaker regrets getting caught is what he regrets! And my favorite of the three is “Redemption.” It’s a painful poem about not just having to face the consequences of wrong action but to actually develop awareness of their implications. A hard subject with an elusive tone and I’m glad it worked for you!

      Thank you again for your gracious and insightful comment, Susan!

  6. Patricia Allred

    Brian, I, personally, appreciated Redemption.
    I won’t go into an esoteric analysis on it. Who ever thinks of what it would be like to be locked in a cell for life, knowing the heinous crimes one has done.
    And worse, ~ facing eternal damnation. It was a chilling and moving poem. I have only known one murderer personally in my life a very affable man, but I never once saw what was coming. I prefer humans who are not always happy, but tell the truth. Life is no bowl of cherries. It’s better to be truthful than a clown or a saint. I prefer honesty in people? Integrity matters! Patricia Allred

    • Brian A Yapko

      Thank you, Patricia, for going back and looking at this set of crime-related poems. One just never knows what goes on inside another person’s mind. And yes, integrity matters!


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