Everyone who loves justice and fairness should stand and applaud the outcome of the trial yesterday that found in favor of the family of Falls Church’s own Jack Stephen “Steve” Cornejo. Cornejo, then 22, was shot and killed almost two years ago now, and no criminal charges were ever filed against the assailant. In an obvious attempt to stonewall efforts by the grieving family and friends of the popular George Mason High School Class of 2000 graduate, the Fairfax County Commonwealth Attorney’s office and police categorically refused to reveal the identity of the killer. It took the filing of a civil lawsuit alleging a “wrongful death” against the unknown killer a year ago to compel, under subpoena, Fairfax police to eventually release records of the case that included the name of the killer, Brandon Gotwalt.
Yesterday, a jury of four women and three men heard almost two days of testimony and after due deliberation, emerged at midday to find in favor of the Cornejo family, attributing responsibility for the death to Gotwalt. It took this long, since the incident on June 25, 2005, but justice at last has begun to be done. Not only that, but the jury was emphatic in its finding. It slapped a penalty of almost $2 million against the defendant, far more than the Cornejo family ever imagined it wanted. To the Cornejos, justice was their utmost desire. Unable to bring their beloved Steve back, justice was their consolation.
It is sad to say that in this case, the “good old boy” trappings of racism and discrimination are stamped all over it. Cornejo and his family are El Salvadorean, albeit Steve was raised up through the intimate City of Falls Church school system, a favorite of classmates and teachers, and co-captained the George Mason High School soccer team that won a state championship just prior to his graduation in 2000.
Fairfax officials have to be suspected of gross prejudice in this case. They undoubtedly thought that the economically-disadvantaged Cornejo family would complain for awhile, and then just go away.
Little did they realize that Steve Cornejo had such a strong community of support. That included family and friends, alike. This newspaper, which knew Steve personally as did so many in this town, helped the cause with relentless front-page and editorial attention to the case, and to the official cover-up. Tireless efforts were made to find an attorney who would take the case. Eventually, Arlington attorney Malik Cutlar took it on. Like a Knight in Shining Armor, he did a highly-competent job representing the family in court. Almost a year in the making, yesterday’s verdict proved a glistening triumph for us all. Young News-Press reporter Nate Taylor, present through the whole trial, said the emotionally-charged reading of yesterday’s verdict was without a doubt the most remarkable experience of his entire life.
Steve is gone. But, at last, justice in his case has proven not to be.