The woman cringed; so did her attorney. They had not anticipated this. But Urbina knew that this would be his final chance to hear directly from the defendant before imposing sentence, and he wanted to gauge her remorse and get a sense of her as a person beyond the stick-figure rendered in court papers.
Lest they raise questions about their impartiality, judges are loath to discuss the emotional strain or joys of the job. But Urbina, a gray-haired jurist who took up Aikido in his 50s and meditates daily, is known for wearing his heart on his sleeve. And in a series of interviews, the judge spoke candidly about what he and most of his colleagues consider the most difficult and draining aspect of their work: sentencing, that gut-wrenching courtroom moment when a real life intersects with esoteric legal arguments and sentencing guidelines that never truly capture a case’s nuances.
For Urbina, sentencing has always been filled with stress and doubt — of agonizingly weighing the crime against the defendant’s past, of worrying about what message to send to the public and of feeling that he was never given the proper tools to rehabilitate offenders. So, after 31 years on the local and D.C. federal bench, of sitting in judgment of scam artists, burglars, corrupt government officials and murderers, the judge retired last month, explaining that a prime reason he left a job he loved was that he had simply grown too tired of sentencing.
So, perhaps it is fitting that this sentencing, the last in which he had any discretion, was so typical of what he had confronted during his long career — with its ambiguity and tough choices.
Before he could make any decisions, however, the judge needed to hear from the frightened woman standing before him. So he asked her again, this time more gently: “Tell me what happened.”
It was 2:17 p.m. on a recent Thursday when Urbina, clad in his black robe, entered the august wood-paneled Courtroom 30A through a back door, carrying a manila folder filled with papers. The judge strode five steps and sat in his high-backed leather chair on the courtroom’s elevated bench. He pivoted slightly to his right and studied Norma Borgono, a diminutive woman whose hands were clenched under the defense table. Next he scanned from right to left: taking stock of Borgono’s attorney and a federal prosecutor, a probation official, a deputy U.S. marshal and his own law clerk. Then he eyed the gallery, empty except for a federal agent, two law students and four of Borgono’s relatives.
The judge opened his file and retrieved the case’s sentencing memos, plea agreement and lengthy pre-sentence report, which he had read over the past few days and which spelled out the case’s particulars: Borgono had pleaded guilty to conspiring to defraud the federal government by falsifying records that allowed her boss, the president of a Miami-based export company, to steal more than $10 million from the Export-Import Bank of the United States.