Johanna: Facing Forward

When Juan Ruiz smacked her, pushed her to the ground and berated her, Johanna Orozco buried her torment in a journal. As she was raced to the hospital, her face blown off and bleeding, Johanna remained stoic. When she was trapped in the hospital, wondering whether she would ever be beautiful again, she put on a brave face for everyone.

Now, Johanna sat in a courtroom Wednesday, clutching a purple notebook and waiting for the boy she had loved to be sentenced. The emotions she had held back for so long bubbled to the surface in a poem.

"Prince Charming it's clear to see that happily ever after was never meant to be," she started.

They had been in Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Judge Timothy McGinty's courtroom for hours when Johanna got to speak.

But first distraught family members -- on both sides -- relived March 5, the day Johanna was shot.

The sawed-off shotgun Juan had used was waved around. Slugs were pulled from his bandoleer and lined up on the judge's bench. Shocking pictures of the damage to Johanna's face were flashed on a large screen.

Juan was allowed to speak first. He stood up and turned to face Johanna. The judge wouldn't let him. "I'm really sorry, Johanna. I really am. If I could change it, I would."

His attorney, Patricia London, told the judge that the 17-year-old was not a monster but a typical high school kid who had been filled with jealousy and rage. She said what he did, what he was capable of, haunted him.

The day of the shooting was the source of nightmares for many people in the courtroom.

Dr. Michael Fritz, the surgeon reconstructing her face, flew home from a conference in Washington to tell the judge what he and his partner, Dr. Tung Trang, have done to piece Johanna back together. And about the other surgeries she will need.

"There's no way I can give her back what God gave her in the first place," Fritz said. "I just can't."

The bills at MetroHealth Medical Center are more than $380,000 so far. Most should be covered by Medicaid.

Johanna's grandmother unleashed still-raw feelings as she recounted finding Johanna shot and bleeding in her driveway.

"I pulled back her hair and my daughter didn't have a face," Juanita Orozco said in Spanish, her cries piercing the courtroom.

She gazed at Juan, the boy she had considered a son. "It hurts for me to see you there. You are a coward. You should have done it to me."

One after another, Johanna's friends and relatives marched forward, telling the judge how Juan's actions had affected their lives. They begged for the maximum sentence, 41 years.

Johanna's little brother, 16-year-old Kevin, sobbed as he talked about losing both of his parents five years ago. He had been so close to losing his sister, too.

"She's the last person I have left. She's the only one I have," he said.

Some said they forgave Juan. That they prayed for him.

Johanna's Aunt Hilda, the woman who had been holding her hand for months, urging her to stay strong, had no tears. She does consider Juan a monster. She said Juan had already sentenced her niece to a lifetime of terrifying memories of rape and scars from the shotgun blast.

She knew that Juan could be put in prison for a long time. But Johanna would always be in her own kind of jail. One he had created out of fear.

"This is not the day that Juan Ruiz gets sentenced," Hilda said. "This is the day that there is justice for Johanna Orozco."

Finally, it was Johanna's turn to speak.

She had practiced her poem over and over, hoping the more she read it the easier it would be. She wanted to read it effortlessly, like the lines in all the high school plays she had performed.

But as she recited her own words, tears welled in her eyes.

"Take a good look at the scars on me. But know I'm living my life free," she read.

Juan's head lifted from the table, looking for the first time at Johanna.

"You thought I was going to be eight feet under but all you did was make me stronger."

After she finished the poem, she had something else to say.

"Juan, I don't hate you, I don't, but you deserve what you have coming."

Juan's mother, Candida, afraid to speak in court, made a plea for mercy in a letter read by Juan's attorney.

She wrote that Juan was still a child. His life had not been easy.

"What he did is not what he is," she wrote.

Just after 6 p.m., more than three hours after the hearing began, McGinty gave a speech, calling Johanna courageous and saying Juan was capable of extreme violence. That he intended to kill her.

Then McGinty pronounced the sentence: 27 years. The earliest Juan could get out would be at age 44.

Neither side was happy.

Candida's worst fears were not realized -- that her son could have been in jail for 41 years. But she vowed to appeal the sentence because it's too long. She said other people have committed worse crimes and gotten lesser sentences.

Johanna's family was stunned. It was minutes before anyone spoke.

"He won again," Johanna said.

But then she took a breath and hugged her friends.

"I guess if it was meant to be this way, it was meant to be this way," she said.

It was time to move on.