Op-Ed

When locking the door and throwing away the key is the answer

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The woman who shuffled into the courtroom a month ago no longer bore even the faintest resemblance to her Facebook photo. That woman, the captain of her high school cheerleading squad, once had short, pink hair, was slim and attractive. Now, handcuffed and wearing a red jumpsuit and unfashionable glasses, she was chubby, her hair long and brown.

It was the first time I had seen Lauren O’Connor, the 25-year-old who played a part in the killing of my cousin Ryan, other than in a photo. And she didn’t look at all like I envisioned a felon would.

Escorted by a police officer, she smiled weakly at her parents. Then she faced the jury box, where my cousin’s friends and immediate family members sat, waiting to share their impact statements. O’Connor stood for several hours while a few people who loved her pleaded for mercy, followed by others who spoke of how her murderous act had ruined their lives.

I’d never been to a sentencing, and didn’t know what to expect. I was sadder than I’d ever been. The worst part was seeing O’Connor’s complete lack of emotion. She didn’t appear to care at all.

Ryan, the son of my favorite cousin, Shari, was murdered in Pittsburgh in August 2016, when he was 21. O’Connor, his girlfriend of nine months, had persuaded him to accompany her to buy Percocet. Ryan was trying to stop her from shooting heroin, his older brother, Alex, told me.

The couple ended up in a park where a man named Kristopher Lott waited. According to police, Lott, who had a criminal record, quickly became aggressive, hitting Ryan with a gun and demanding money. Lott forced Ryan into a car and O’Connor drove them to a bank. A camera there recorded Ryan emptying his bank account — he had all of $78. Then O’Connor drove to a remote area, where Lott dragged Ryan into the woods and shot him in the head.

The pair then went to O’Connor’s house, where, hours after the murder, O’Connor texted Shari on Ryan’s phone, pretending to be him. He was OK and was sleeping at a friend’s house, she texted.

In the days that followed, while Ryan’s family searched for him, O’Connor went about her life as though nothing had happened, going to cosmetology school the day after the murder and dancing at a rave. She eventually told police where his body was and said that Lott was the killer, for which she received immunity. But she ended up violating her parole when she failed a random drug test and was put in jail.

Lott pleaded guilty to third-degree murder and was sentenced to 27½ to 60 years. O’Connor pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit murder a few months later, after the district attorney’s office, monitoring Lott’s prison cell, heard him tell another inmate that O’Connor had bought the bullets and given him her father’s gun for the murder.

The first person to ask the judge for mercy was O’Connor’s older brother. He cried and begged, and I found myself feeling sorry for him. His sister was unmoved.

Her mother was next. She made the mistake of beginning her plea by directing it at Shari. “We’ve both lost children,” she said. “You’re a mother like me — you understand.”

Shari was horrified, and so was I as we wiped away our tears. Later she told me she’d seen O’Connor’s mother several times around town, but her mother wouldn’t even make eye contact. “At least she can visit her daughter,” Shari said, fingering the cylinder of Ryan’s ashes that she wore on a necklace. “This is all I have.”

Eleven people read their impact statements, and the judge was given 24 additional statements. One was from me. I asked the judge for the maximum sentence for O’Connor, writing that although I believe that prisoners can be rehabilitated, O’Connor would never change. Her actions were cold, calculating and cruel. She took advantage of someone’s kindness, of someone who tried to help her.

Ryan was committed to getting her off drugs, Alex said. He even went to 12 Step meetings with her.

I still can’t wrap my head around this. And I’m sorry, I don’t believe that doing drugs makes someone so crazy that she can’t stop herself from assisting in a murder. That was O’Connor’s defense when it was her turn to speak — she was out of her mind.

I can’t feel any compassion for her, but I don’t hate her. I comfort myself with the judge’s sentence — the maximum, 20 to 40 years. And the fact that she’ll be far away, in a Pennsylvania state prison, where she can’t hurt my family anymore — or, for that matter, anyone else.

Laura Lane is senior editor of the Glen Cove and Sea Cliff-Glen Head Herald-Gazettes and the Oyster Bay Guardian. Comments? LLane@liherald.com.