Demitri Hampton knew exactly what he wanted to be in life, his family members say. He was going to pursue a career in forensic science.
Demitri excelled in the subject while a student at Suffolk County Community College and he believed he’d one day apply those skills to help collect evidence to solve crimes.
It’s not lost on Demitri’s family four years after his death just how tragic it is that a failure to disclose evidence ultimately robbed them of justice in the form of a murder conviction against the man accused of firing the bullet that killed the 21-year-old from Riverhead.
“It feels like we should be having another funeral,” said Demitri’s mother, Juanita Trent, as she stood outside her house in Polish Town Tuesday afternoon, the crosses atop the steeples at nearby St. Isidore Church looming over her. Less than two hours earlier, Ms. Trent’s head fell into her hands, tears dripping from her eyes as Messiah Booker admitted to taking part in the incident that led to her son’s death, but only under the cover of a plea agreement that will see him convicted of attempted burglary, a crime to which he’ll serve just five years in prison.
“We mourned for him when we lost him four years ago,” Ms. Trent said of her youngest child. “Now it’s like we have to mourn the outcome of this trial.”
Demitri’s closest relatives spent the afternoon on the deck outside the family home. His brother, Jamal Davis, was in disbelief over how the justice system could fail a young man with so much promise. His sister, Jennifer Davis, thought of how her 5-year-old son never got to know her brother and he’ll be just 10 years old when the man believed to be responsible for his uncle’s death is released from prison.
One might think that on such an afternoon, Demitri’s family would be filled with anger, but that’s not the word that best describes the mood at their house. Astonishment would be more accurate.
How could the prosecutor they placed their trust in have been so reckless? How could the whole system fail in such a way that a man could be facing life in prison one day and be serving just five years the next?
The first sign the family received that things might be taking a turn for the worst came Friday when they were notified by prosecutor Glenn Kurtzrock that files previously undisclosed would be turned over to the defense. Family members then spent the full day in court Monday as the DA’s office, feeling the case slipping from their fingertips, negotiated with Mr. Booker on a plea deal. The family heard possible sentences ranging from 12 to 18 years, but a deal could not be struck.
They returned to the court Tuesday afternoon to be told by a homicide detective that Mr. Booker had accepted an offer of just five years, after his defense attorney spent that morning detailing just how much damage the prosecution did to its case by, as the defense attorney put it, “surgically removing” memos from the file in the case.
Yet hours later Demitri’s family struggled to use harsh words even when describing the attorneys.
“I don’t know why he would do that,” Mr. Davis said of Mr. Kurtzrock. “If he had these notes they should have been a part of the case.”
Of defense attorney Brendan Ahern, Mr. Davis said he “did his job well.”
Throughout the trial, various members of Demitri’s family were present in the courtroom. They were respectful throughout, understanding that no matter how difficult it was to see photos from the crime scene or hear testimony from cooperating witnesses, they were not to be a distraction. They waited patiently day after day in hopes that the outcome would be favorable.
“We hoped that in the end we’d find justice,” Ms. Davis said.
Instead, just five days before Mother’s Day, Ms. Trent and her family received the worst news they’d heard since Jan. 27, 2013. Five years.
Still, Ms. Trent explained, you have to go on living your life in spite of all the despair.
So they stood on the deck of their home, receiving the occasional hug or phone call from friends wishing to offer condolences, searching for answers they know they’ll never find. Soon the conversation between them turned practical. Kids needed to go to practice, checks needed to be deposited in the bank.
Even after such a tragedy, life keeps happening and you just have to fight your way through it.
“We’re fighters,” Ms. Trent said, with Demitri’s siblings jumping in to explain that they always fought for each other growing up.
It’s that fighting spirit that might have cost Demitri Hampton his life. His family said it never surprised them to hear that on the night three armed men burst inside the house where he was staying, Demitri didn’t run away or try to hide. He fought back knowing the safety of his girlfriend and his cousins was in jeopardy.
One thing perhaps more admirable is the way Demitri’s family fights for him today. They’ve turned their cheeks in the name of civility and kept his name alive in the spirit of doing good. Despite their disappointment in the outcome of the trial, a fundraiser in Demitri’s name will go on as planned next Friday, May 19. The family will be serving chicken and fish dinners from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Elks Lodge on East Main Street that day. Proceeds will benefit a Suffolk Community College student.
Demitri Hampton’s death may lack justice. But his life, to this day, is one of honor.
Caption: Ms. Trent and Mr. Davis sit on a bench dedicated in Demitri’s honor by Suffolk County Community College late Tuesday afternoon, hours after learning of his accused killer’s fate.
The author is the executive editor of Times Review Media Group. He can be reached at [email protected].