On April 10, Urbana Police officers threw an African American woman, Aleyah Lewis, to the ground and punched her while she was down. She had protested the arrest of a friend. Caught on video, this led many people in the community to demand that the officers be held accountable. The following article that I wrote in this paper in July, 2016 shows how little the police are held accountable in Champaign County.
States’s Attorney Rietz Goes Easy on Violent Police and Jail Officers
On March 30, 2015, there was a ceremony in the Champaign City Building during which Officer Jerad Gale was given the award for being “Officer of the Year.” About a year later, in May, 2016, this same officer pleaded guilty to aggravated criminal sexual abuse in Piatt County Court. He was sentenced to six months in the Piatt County jail, then 48 months of probation. He also had to register as a sexual predator.
But Gale was a serial offender. He sexually assaulted women in Champaign County as well as Piatt County. Champaign County State’s Attorney Julia Rietz agreed to a guilty plea in Champaign County that imposed the same sentence as in Piatt County, and agreed that the sentences would be served concurrently. That means that there was no additional penalty for two sexual assaults in Champaign County! How is that for a deal?
The justifications that Rietz was quoted in the News-Gazette (May 28, B2) as offering were that “I don’t believe that these are inappropriate sentences [note the double negative, often used in obfuscation]…He will be held accountable; trials can be risky “it’s very much he said, she said” (as though many rape cases involving civilians for which those convicted are given very long prison sentences are not “he said, she said); and she took into account the needs of the victims to move on.
The “needs of the victim to move on” argument rings a bit shallow given the fact that Rietz has a pattern of behavior of going ever so easy on violent offenders who are police officers, and ever so hard on accused civilian violent offenders who often receive 35-60 year sentences. Two other interesting cases occurred ten years earlier, in 2005.
Urbana officer Kurt Hjort was accused by a woman of raping her. He used the police communication system to track her to her residence. He went to her residence in uniform and in the squad car. When his semen was found in the rape kit, he claimed that the sex was consensual. Because her husband was a fellow officer on the Urbana police department, Rietz decided that she could not prosecute the case. Instead of seeking a prosecutor from the appellate court or the office of the Attorney General in Springfield or a prosecutor in another county, it was decided to go to a local attorney, James Dedman, to serve as a special prosecutor. Despite a recommendation from the Illinois State Police to prosecute, Dedman decided that a prosecution was not warranted. Officer Hjort was forced to resign, but he was perfectly free to seek employment as a police officer elsewhere. The City of Urbana settled with the victim for an unknown amount that was at least $100,000.
The second 2005 case was that of Sgt. William Myers, a deputy sheriff in the county jail. Myers tortured a mentally ill inmate, who was in a restraint chair, with repeated bursts from a Taser. He falsified reports on the incident but was turned in by other deputies. The state police investigated and found that Myers had tased or beaten three other inmates as well. Myers was forced to take a guilty felony plea which entailed two years of probation and 100 hours of community service. Unlike Hjort, he will not be able to work in corrections or policing, but no jail or prison time for repeatedly torturing and beating people is quite a deal.
In 2008, Curtis Bolding, a member of the University of Illinois Police Department, was charged with domestic battery against his wife. After he was initially charged with a felony, Rietz reduced the charge to a misdemeanor. He resigned from the force but retained the possibility of finding a job on another police force.
The last instance that I will mention here relates to the article that I had in the last (May) issue of the Public i, concerning the 2012 vicious beating of Mr. Myron Scruggs by two Champaign police officers, Matt Rush and David McLearin. Mr. Scruggs is an African American dialysis technician who was on temporary assignment in a Champaign clinic. He had committed no crime. Nevertheless, he relates how the two officers burst into his hotel room, pepper-sprayed his eyes, handcuffed him behind his back, and then beat him so severely that they fractured the orbital bone above his eye. They then charged HIM with assaulting an officer and resisting arrest!
As I wrote in the last issue of this paper, I took Mr. Scruggs to a meeting with Champaign Mayor Don Gerard and Councilmember and Deputy Mayor Tom Bruno to tell his story. I demanded that the charges of resisting arrest and assaulting an officer be dropped and the officers who had beaten him be criminally charged. At that time I did not know that Matt Rush, who has cost the city many thousands of dollars in civil damage claims and has recently been dismissed from the force, had been involved. When I learned earlier this year that Rush was the one who had broken his bones, I alerted Mr. Scruggs’s lawyer to this fact. On the basis of Officer Rush’s excessive violence and dubious reports and testimony in other cases, State’s Attorney Rietz had said she would not use his testimony in any future cases.
Back in 2012, Scruggs’s attorney could not get her to drop both charges against Mr. Scruggs, so Scruggs was faced with the choice of accepting a guilty plea to resisting arrest, or facing a trial for assaulting an officer in which he risked being sentenced to prison and losing his professional license. With the new information that it was Officer Rush who had broken Mr. Scruggs’s bones and that the State’s Attorney had already called Rush’s honesty into question, Scruggs’s lawyer asked the state’s attorney to annul Scruggs’s plea of resisting the police. Despite all that she now admitted knowing about Rush, she refused to do it. Moreover, she has refused to charge ex-Officer Rush criminally for any of his excessive violence against other civilians, or for not being truthful in his police reports, or for perjury before a court.
Conclusion: Justice Turned Upside Down
States’s Attorney Rietz shows a great deal of compassion for officers of the state who physically and feloniously harm people. But the sentences her office asks for when civilians are charged with violent felonies are often very harsh. Could it be that she has been too close to the police, having married an officer? Perhaps that should be a disqualification from the office. If she feels that she cannot prosecute police officers, then she should at least seek a prosecutor from outside the county when police officers rape, use excessive or unjustified force, or commit other felonies.
Citizens of Champaign County have every right to be scandalized, because when a police officer or sheriff’s deputy commits a crime, it should be seen as much more serious than when an average citizen does. This is because such people are charged with acting in the name of the state. When they abuse that power, when they violate the laws they have sworn to enforce, they delegitimize the state. We should expect more from them, and when they violate their oaths they should receive more severe punishments than civilians do, not less. Rietz has turned justice in the Champaign Court House upside down.