Friday, April 15, 2011

And in a Single Moment....

It is a time-worn cliche.  From time immemorial people have observed that, "In a single moment, everything changes."  And the change wrought by that moment's appearance is not always good.  Under certain circumstances, the change can be tragic for all impacted by it.

In the wee small hours of the morning of July 31, 2010 (3:30 or so to be precise - a time at which I am up for the day save for days when I do something half-assed such as sleep through my alarm) the Bridgewater Township Police Department responded to the area of Linden Street, alerted by a 911 call to a report of a "fight in progress" in the street.  Upon arrival, the officers found two men who they identified as Brian Johnston (age 18) and Douglas Uhler (age 18) lying in the roadway.

Investigation revealed that Messrs. Johnston and Uhler ended up where the police found them as a result of at least one - and in the case of Uhler apparently a second - bad decision.  Johnston and Uhler were on Linden Street running away from Alex Montalvo.  Montalvo lives on Oak Street in Bridgewater.  That night he and his wife were awakened from their sleep by the sounds of Johnston and Uhler breaking into their car (the horn apparently went off).  Montalvo pursued Johnston and Uhler to Linden Street.  Once there, Johnston decided to stand and fight, which resulted in Montalvo knocking him down - and presumably out - with a single punch.

At some point after Johnston and Montalvo had completed their "fight" (if Tyson vs. Spinks is considered a fight then I suppose anything is possible),  and Montalvo was retrieving from Johnston whatever personal items Johnston had stolen from his vehicle, Uhler jumped out of some bushes, yelled out, "Do you want a piece of me [insert expletive of your choice here]?" and  attacked Montalvo.  Montalvo and Uhler struggled, which struggle ended when Montalvo placed Uhler in a submission hold.  According to the police, Uhler was unresponsive when they arrived due to having had the flow of oxygen to his brain cut off by the submission hold.

Johnston and Uhler were both arrested and charged with third-degree burglary of a car.  On December 15, 2010 a Somerset County Grand Jury handed up an indictment against both men for the crime charged.  The same Grand Jury also considered charges against Montalvo for his actions and declined to indict him.

Uhler died at Morristown Memorial Hospital on April 10.  At the time of his death, he was nineteen.  He  never recovered from the effects of the submission hold and spent the final eight-plus months of his life either bedridden or in a wheelchair, unable to speak.  At the time he died, he was no longer facing criminal charges.  In March a judge dismissed the charges against him on the grounds that Uhler was not competent to stand trial.  His cohort, Johnston, has already pleaded guilty and is awaiting sentencing.

In the immediate aftermath of his son's death, Uhler's father reacted as a father might.  He demanded that charges now be brought against Montalvo.   While I practice law on the civil side of the justice system exclusively, I would think it unlikely that any criminal charges shall be filed against him.  A Grand Jury declined to indict him several months ago for his role in the events of July 31, 2010.  While the consequences of those actions have now grown graver, the actions themselves remain static.  He should be judged now as he was by the Grand Jury in December. 

I know none of the players involved in this matter.  I suppose anyone who happens to Google Uhler and happens upon this piece will accuse me of being unfair in my portrayal of the young man and the events that ultimately claimed his life.  My response?  Do not shoot the messenger.  The description of the events presented here is taken from the official information that the Somerset County Prosecutor's Office released announcing the indictments of Uhler and Johnston back in December.  And to me - recognizing it is but one person's opinion - the critical piece of information is Uhler's decision to attack Montalvo after Montalvo had fought with Johnston.  Uhler is described - in the Prosecutor's description of events - as having jumped out of some bushes, challenging Montalvo to a fight and thereafter attacking him physically.  Much has been made - and I anticipate that more shall be made of it upon the filing by the Uhler family of the inevitable civil suit against Montalvo - of whether Montalvo's response was appropriate in light of the fact that this fight arose out of two idiots attempting to burglarize his car. 

Respectfully, I do not believe that is the issue at all.  Presuming that the information provided by the Prosecutor is accurate, then Montalvo's actions need to be viewed through the prism of a man defending himself - and perhaps his wife as well (she was present according to the Prosecutor) - from physical attack.  I do not pretend to know what would have happened had Uhler - upon seeing Montalvo starch Johnston - either (a) run as fast as he could away from Montalvo; or (b) stepped out of the bushes giving himself up and waiting along with his fallen friend for the arrival of the police.  No one can answer that question. 

Irrespective of one's position on the propriety of Montalvo's action - and based upon the information the Prosecutor has disclosed publicly I think his response in protecting himself and his wife was not only appropriate but predictable - I would wager that all would agree that what happened on a street in Bridgewater Township in the early morning hours of July's last day is a tragedy for two families.  One which did not reasonably anticipate having to bury its son at age nineteen and one which did not reasonably anticipate having to protect itself from attack at the hands of the other's son.  Where either family goes from here is uncertain.  I suspect that they have not yet reached the end of their interaction with one another.

One thing is certain.  Neither can go back from whence they came.  Once a single moment changes everything, it changes everything forever. 

-AK

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