Peter C. Dorsey, who sentenced gang-bangers and a governor, dies at 80

Peter C. Dorsey, who died Friday at age 80, was one of the joys of covering the federal courts in Connecticut. He had an impish sense of humor, a love of banter on and off the bench, and an endless capacity for exasperating federal prosecutors and agents, who found him too willing to cut criminal defendants a break.

Oh, he could be tough, too. He showed a cold fury sentencing some Hartford gang bangers to life in prison for racketeering. Their crimes included the drive-by shooting of 7-year-old Marcelina Delgado, whose murder was a galvanizing event in the city.

But it also was Judge Dorsey who sentenced Gov. John G. Rowland to 12 months and a day in prison in 2005, three months less than the bottom of the 15-to-21-month range recommended by federal sentencing guidelines. It was one of many sentencings I covered in his court, though not the most memorable for me or, I suspect, the most difficult for him.

I think he struggled far more 10 years earlier to decide on a punishment for a janitor named Albeiro Garcia, who supplemented his wages mopping floors at the World Trade Center with the occasional odd job, including helping to unload 717 pounds of cocaine from a smuggler’s RV. Once arrested, Garcia was cooperative with prosecutors, who filed a motion freeing Dorsey from having to impose a minimum sentence of 14 years. The judge could use his discretion.

On the day of Garcia’s sentencing, I found his 11-year-old son outside Dorsey’s court in New Haven, peeking through a narrow gap in the double doors, trying to see what was happening. A tin of Crayolas and drawing paper sat untouched on a bench. Garcia had told his wife he did not want the boy to see him led away. So, the son was left in the corridor with his crayons. But he watched anyway.

Inside, Dorsey told Garcia that he believed him to be genuinely contrite. “You are a different man today than you were at the time the offense was committed,” Dorsey said. “At times like these, I wish I was a priest…You forgive them, and it’s over and done with.”

But Dorsey said he had to impose a sentence that would protect society and deter others. He sentenced the man to six years in prison, which would be followed by deportation to his native Colombia.

“I’m sure if someone put drugs in the hands of that youngster of yours, the rage that you would feel would be uncontrollable,” Dorsey said. “But that is exactly what you did. That is not something I can ignore.”

Once Garcia was led outside the courtroom, his son came in. The family’s priest told him what had happened. They spoke for a minute, then the boy walked toward Dorsey and told him, “Thank you.”

Dorsey, who seemed startled, leaned forward on his elbows.

“You’re the son of Mr. Garcia?” he asked.

The boy nodded.

“It’s a very sad thing,” Dorsey said.

The boy nodded again. He was in tears.

“He’s a good man in very many respects,” said the judge.

Another nod from the boy.

It turned out that Dorsey had received a letter from the boy before the sentencing. The judge and the boy talked about the coming years, about the importance of an education and the danger of drugs. He asked what the boy wanted to be when he grew up.

“A soccer player,” the boy said.

“It teaches you to play with others, that’s good,” Dorsey said.

They spoke a little longer. Dorsey wished the boy well and urged him to write. He watched the boy leave with his mother and the priest.

Dorsey, who was open to having a reporter drop by his chamber to chat, occasionally talked to me about that day as the years passed. It was a sentencing that stayed with him. It was his gentle conversation with the son of a man he just sentenced to prison that always will stay with me.

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