When the sentence was read, the young murderer began to moan and he dropped his head to the defendant’s table. Still moaning, he rolled his head back and forth on the hard wood, horrified to the marrow of his bones at the notion of a lifetime in prison.

A year before, he had beaten a deaf girl to death with a drill bit during an act of sex. Clearly he had not yet come to a blissful state of acceptance for his deed.

This was Waterville in the 1980s, and I followed the sentencing with particular fascination. Few things reveal the exposed soul of a person like the moment such life-affecting fate is pronounced. In my own experiences in the courtroom since then, I have seen few displays of such mortal agony. Even faced with life in a cage, most defendants remain unflinching at sentencing in accordance with advice from their attorneys.

Yet, I know they are afraid.

A week ago, I received a letter from convicted double murderer Gary Gauthier. In his words, fear crawled across the page in the guise of anger and defiance. Instead of lamenting his own doom, he flung outrage at the people who had been murdered, their families and most of the judicial system.

Two days later, I received another letter, this one from the co-defendant. For Tom Dyer, most of the layers of outright denial had been stripped away, as if with an iron brush. What was left was fear, raw and huge.

“I am really scared about going to prison,” he wrote. “I’ve never been and Gary’s going to be there… the prison life is not for me. My life is with my son Donnovan and my family. I am only 21 years old. I still have my whole life ahead of me. I just hope that most of it is not in prison.”

Yet when the sentence was read – Dyer was ordered to prison for 47 years, which I believe constitutes the bulk of his natural life – he only squeezed his eyes closed.

Perhaps at that moment, as the judge’s words and those fateful numbers arranged themselves logically in his brain, Dyer fell back upon denial rather than let fear devour him completely. Maybe he defaulted back to the part of his reasoning that compelled him to make references to innocence in that letter that was otherwise humble.

“I am just not a violent person. I am not a punk,” he wrote. “I’m more of a family guy.”

A family guy who admits being present when two men were clubbed to death with a baseball bat. A family guy who admits to helping Gauthier bury the bodies in pitifully shallow graves. But a family guy who portrays himself as a victim, controlled by fear rather than brutality.

“I was there. Why didn’t I try to stop him? Well, I did try. I told Gary to stop and even tried to grab the bat. But Gary looked at me and told me to back off or he’ll kill me, too. I could have kept trying, but Gary is a lot stronger than I am and he would have killed me, too.”

The jury and the court believe that both Gary Gauthier and Tom Dyer are responsible for the deaths of James Vining and John Graffam. Both the accused face long, bleak lives in a place unimaginable for most of us. So I guess we can forgive them a little bit for these trembling, last efforts at defiance. Whether the bigger, stronger and more violent peers of prison will provide them such latitude is doubtful.

If there is one thing that sets Tom Dyer apart from Gary Gauthier for me, it is contained in nearly two dozen words in that letter. The words express a sentiment completely lacking in the white-knuckle anger of the Gauthier missive.

“You know my prayers are with all the victim’s families,” Dyer wrote. “James and John did not deserve what Gary did to them.”

It’s still denial. But at least it’s denial tinged with remorse.

Mark LaFlamme is the Sun Journal’s crime reporter.