The Injustice System in Champaign County

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Recent events have convinced me that the justice system
in Champaign County is skewed against the African
American population and should be more properly
referred to as an injustice system. There have been excessive
charges against blacks, retaliatory prosecution and
even reprosecution to achieve a guilty verdict, and differential
treatment for sexual offenses when the accused are
black and when the accused are police officers or members
of the bar. There have also been five deaths in the
county jail since 2004, the majority of them African-
The excessive charges center on felony eavesdropping
and obstruction of justice. Felony eavesdropping was the
charge originally levied against Patrick Thompson and
Martell Miller after they were arrested for filming and
recording Champaign police stops of African American
motorists and cyclists to document racial profiling. The
felony eavesdropping law was intended by the Legislature to
punish people for taping phone calls, conversations, or
interviews without permission. It was never intended to be
used against people monitoring police behavior. But the
Champaign Police and the state’s attorneys office, then
under John Piland, decided to try to stop black activists from
monitoring police behavior through this egregious misuse of
the law.
Another form of excessive charging is obstruction of
justice. Giving the wrong name, or even a nickname, to a
police officer has traditionally been treated as a misdemeanor.
Felony obstruction of justice has usually been
considered interfering with or derailing police work or
lying to the police concerning the facts of a crime. But the
local police and the courts used the felony charge against
Terrell Layfield, an African American man who one of the
three officially acknowledged suicides in the county jail in
the last two years. Layfield had been acquitted of a drug
felony charge, but he was sentenced to 66 months in
prison for giving the officer the wrong name at the time of
the arrest.
Before losing the state’s attorney office to Julia Reitz
in 2004, Piland dropped the eavesdropping charge
against Miller, but not against Patrick Thompson. He
also instituted a charge of illegal entry and sexual abuse
against Thompson. Reitz dropped the eavesdropping
charges against Thompson but did not drop illegal entry
and sexual abuse charges. Because of Reitz’s prior contact
with Thompson, the prosecution was turned over to
a special state prosecutor. Thompson defended himself
at the first trial. The jury was unable to convict. The
state retried him. He faced a jury that had only one
black person, hardly a jury of his peers. The Urbana
Police failed to inspect the alleged crime scene and collected
no physical evidence (e.g., fingerprints on the
door knob) of a crime. While the prosecutor attempted
to discredit the black defense witness by raising her conviction
for obstruction of justice, there was no scrutiny
of any legal history of the white accuser nor of possible
similar accusations made by her in the past. Yet Thompson
was convicted.
Let us compare how the legal system treats whites who
have faced sexual abuse charges. In 2001, a white dean of
students at Franklin Middle School in Champaign, Brady
Smith, was caught on tape soliciting sex from one of his
14-year-old African American students. More black students
came forward to say he had solicited sex from them.
The dean was a former probation officer with friends in
the state’s attorneys office. He lost his job at the school,
but his only legal punishment for preying on black students
was probation and court costs and fees.
Last year an on-duty Urbana police officer, Kurt Hjort,
was accused by a woman of driving a squad car to her
apartment, entering it without invitation in full uniform
including gun and cuffs, and forcing sexual intercourse
upon her. The officer was fired. The woman sued both the
city and the police chief, the latter because she contended
that he knew of three previous cases of sexual abuses commuted
by the officer while he was on duty. State’s Attorney
Julia Reitz recused herself because she is married to an
Urbana officer and knew the accused socially. Judge Difanis
appointed James Dedman as special prosecutor. The prosecutor
decided that there would be no criminal charges, that
the officer had already been punished enough by losing his
job. The accusations against him, home invasion and actual
rape, were even more serious than those against Thompson.
Yet the city settled with the accuser for an undisclosed
total and the officer walks the streets untried.
Also last year, Brain Silverman, a law partner of Dedman,
was accused of committing a degrading sexual act
on a black woman whose boyfriend was his client, and
thus at the mercy of the attorney. Silverman faced no
criminal prosecution or even permanent disbarment. His
only punishment was a nine-month suspension from
practicing law. This man has been a public defender, paid
by taxpayers to defend, not to abuse, the indigent and
the powerless.
I urge those who find this double standard injustice
unacceptable to express this to Judge Difanis, State’s Attorney
Reitz, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, and
because there are federal equal protection of the laws
issues, to U.S. Rep. Tim Johnson and U.S. Sens. Dick
Durbin and Barack Obama. I also urge people to contact
the Champaign-Urbana Citizens for Peace and Justice mail, which is trying to put
an end to these disparities.
This article first appeared as a commentary in the
August 6 issue of the Champaign-Urbana News-Gazette.

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