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The cops and the killer

On a busy Friday morning, people are rushing from the downtown parking garage to get to court on time. This includes me and four Tampa Police officers tromping down the stairs several steps ahead.

In precise uniforms so blue they're practically black, they move politely around a woman pulling along a small child who is reluctant to attend whatever they're here for. The little girl sees them and pulls close to her mother. "Cops," the girl whispers as they pass.

In the courthouse I ride up a rickety elevator packed with police, leaving another dozen behind to wait for the next car. As we lurch upward, they josh each other gently about this and that, the way you overhear cops rib each other at crime scenes as if to distract from the terrible thing that happened there. One wears a vest marked K-9, as in the unit Cpl. Mike Roberts had served on.

He is why we are here — him, and the wild-eyed homeless man he was checking on, when he could not have known about Humberto Delgado's twisted history of believing the world was out to get him or about the guns in his shopping cart. A good cop with a wife and a son died a terrible death. Two and a half years later, we are here to learn Delgado's fate.

By 10 till 9, every seat in the courtroom is packed tight with reporters and family but mostly with cops, the chief herself in the front row talking to Roberts' widow. A couple of officers in back, maybe just off the night shift, tilt their heads back and rest their eyes. I see weathered veterans nearing retirement and cops as fresh-faced as my own nephew who just graduated a police academy himself, and then I have to push away the thought of him one day in a courtroom like this.

The good-natured joshing across the aisle stops abruptly as bailiffs lead him in, Delgado, shackled and in red jail scrubs that say he is an inmate due the highest security. For a moment on his way to the defense table he faces his audience. The room stares back.

Rarely is there suspense in the sentencing of someone who killed a cop. The law says the fact that the victim was an officer can be used as a reason a killer should be executed. But Delgado's significant mental history makes him different from someone who kills in a robbery or for the cold-blooded thrill of it. Even a doctor who said he was not legally insane when he did this also testified that his extreme mental disturbance should spare him from dying for it. And so we wait.

Hillsborough Circuit Judge Emmett Battles is not a man given to drama or instructive homilies on the meaning of justice. He listens as Roberts' widow tells Delgado the things she has to. Then the judge says: Death. Now it will be up to the Florida Supreme Court to sort out this man's mind, his crime and his punishment, and the higher court may well say life. But today, this is what people silent and unsmiling in this courtroom came to hear. The room nearly hums with it.

As I'm leaving I wonder as I have a million times before how cops do what they do. I also think of Delgado, once a cop himself, and how he fell so far, and about what all this means if it doesn't change a second of what happened that night.

Back at the parking garage I am behind two officers who are heading in separate directions. "Be safe," one says to the other, his voice echoing.

The cops and the killer 02/10/12 [Last modified: Friday, February 10, 2012 9:47pm]
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