Discreet Discretions

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The News-Gazette’s December 28, 2008 editorial would
have us think that the criminal justice system is a level and
consistent playing field, where everyone is treated equally.
The lenient sentence recently given to a Champaign Police
detective’s drunken driving case was a sole exception,
according to The News-Gazette.
The case was whisked through the traffic courts in less
than 18 days and Champaign Police Detective Lisa Staples
received a sentence of court supervision and retained her
driving privileges after she was discovered driving drunk
at 2:30 a.m. in an unmarked squad car, going the wrong
way into head-on traffic on I-72. Defense Attorney Ed
Piraino admitted the sweetheart plea agreement was
arranged so that Staples could keep her job as a police officer.
Piraino stated during a court hearing: “If she can’t
drive, she can’t be a police officer.”
The easy sentence surprised the community, “shocked”
The News-Gazette, and sparked a media barrage from an
angry public, leading to Staples’ eventual resignation.
Were the community and The News-Gazette to visit the
courthouse more often, they would see that such
favoritism is standard fare in Champaign County.
Champaign County State’s Attorney Julia Rietz has been
consistent in ensuring easy sentences for the misconduct of
police officers. During her reign, not one police officer has
ever seen a day of jail time despite recent alleged infractions
such as rape, falsified police reports, torture, stalking, and
domestic battery committed by officers.
Rietz often ducks the responsibility of prosecuting an
officer, citing conflicts of interest. Lucky for Rietz, the
blame for who actually tilts the scales of justice gets placed
on an unknown special prosecutor appointed through
some unknown process. The circuit judge doing the
appointing and the state’s attorney bowing out know in
advance, however, that requesting a certain type of special
prosecutor can likely affect the outcome of the case.
For example, in the Detective Staples’ case, the selection
of a Ford County prosecutor to handle a DUI case, as
Champaign County Circuit Judge Mike Jones revealed
recently on WDWS’s Penny For Your Thoughts Show, was
made with the knowledge that Ford County prosecutors
are more lenient towards first-time DUI’s than is the norm
in Champaign County.
It was a perfect recipe for helping a police officer who
happened to make one little mistake: an out-of-town
lawyer who can do the dirty deed of injustice while no one
in the Champaign County Bar Association would have to
take a hit. Except, maybe, Traffic Judge Richard Klaus who
accepted the plea deal for Staples.
In the 2005 case against Urbana Police Officer Kurt
Hjort, who was accused of rape, Judge Tom Difanis chose
James Dedman, a former employee in Difanis’ state’s attorney’s
office and now a private defense attorney, to prosecute
Officer Hjort. He dismissed the entire criminal prosecution
against Hjort. Dedman didn’t even charge Hjort
with official misconduct for looking up the victim’s
address on the METCAD dispatch system and having sex
(consensual or not) while supposedly on duty.
In 2001, Brady Smith, a middle school dean, was
accused of sexually abusing African-American boys over a
several-year period. Former State’s Attorney John Piland
allowed a close friend of Brady Smith, Elizabeth Dobson,
to prosecute him. After a stipulated plea agreement, Brady
Smith was videotaped by television crews laughing his
way out of the courthouse after receiving 4 years probation
and a $10 fine. Who the prosecutor is makes a world of
difference in how justice gets distributed.
Rietz will make a public example out of Elizabeth
Drewes—another drunk driver who recently killed a
young bride-to-be of 24. A big media splash over Drewes
will help the voters forget about the favors done for Detective
Most of us can’t remember that Julia Rietz gave Kristen
Roseberry, a student from Purdue, 4 years probation for
driving drunk on highway I-57. Like Drewes, Roseberry
collided into oncoming traffic, killing Martha Payne, a 55-
year-old grandmother from Mississippi, and injuring four
other family members. Most of us don’t remember the
pampered treatment given to U of I students, Dong Ki
Yoon and Ioannis Tzicigakis, who were both driving
drunk in two separate cars on campus, killing pedestrian,
Nadia Chowdhury, age 20. Yoon and Tzicigakis both left
the scene of the accident. Yoon served two months in the
county jail in between semesters, and Tzicigakis had his
case dismissed.
State’s Attorney Julia Rietz often discusses “the wonderful”
power she wields called “prosecutorial discretion”.
Discretion about whether to go forward with a police
report, under what category of crime to charge, and what
sentence to recommend are some of the superpowers
granted to state’s attorneys. The 2006 case of Sgt. William
Myers, a correctional officer accused of torturing four people
at the county jail with a taser, shows how this discretion
can minimize the damage against a favored offender.
Rietz, who would have represented the county had the
victims sued the county over Myers’ behavior, initially
offered Myers the light sentence of conditional discharge
(conditional discharge is a form of probation that is automatically
expunged from the offender’s record upon completion),
in exchange for Myers pleading guilty to one count
of misdemeanor disorderly conduct. The outrageous deal
was cancelled when news of the upcoming plea bargain was
released to The News-Gazette. The complaints filed by the
three other victims were ignored by Rietz’ office.
Such cases reveal for whose benefit prosecutorial discretion
is used. The outrage North End families have is not
because they want to see Detective Staples or Sgt. Myers go
to jail. The sense of unfairness stems from African-Americans
and low-income people wishing for the same kinds of
mercy granted to the people prosecutors openly favor.
Equality under the law might mean prosecutors are to
abide by an equal application of the law. The problem
standing in the way could be the living conditions inside
our prisons. Perhaps white cops and white lawyers don’t
have the heart to put their kind in the cruel dungeons we
call “correctional facilities.” Unless a white professional
commits an infamous crime like in the case of Jon White,
an elementary school teacher sexually abusing 8 white
children (whose families can afford civil attorneys), the
white professional class can expect they won’t ever be
required to do time in prison.
Last year’s sensational case against Jon White was the
exception. Robert Arnette, for example, was allowed a sentence
of probation by Assistant State’s Attorney Duke Harris
after Arnette was accused of sexually molesting and
assaulting four children two months prior to the disappearance
of his estranged wife, Naomi.
Justifying her lenient treatment for cops and professionals,
Rietz snaps that the professional white people she
dares to prosecute did lose their job after all, and that’s
punishment enough. Rietz needn’t worry that unfair, disparate
prison sentences will cost her the state’s attorney
job, since few of us are aware that these are the current
courthouse conditions.
Rietz, longing to be seen as a Democrat, attempted to
reach out to local black talk-radio shows and The Ministerial
Alliance last year only to be greeted with the unpleasant
facts that her reign is perceived to be a continuation of
the biased Piland and Difanis eras. Rietz scoffs at any suggestion
her prosecutions are racially biased and often too
harsh on the African-American community.
Would she be willing to ‘prove it,’ by opening the books
and tracking significant information after verdicts? Doubtful.
Like the traffic study that police were required to do,
the results of an objective study at the courthouse might
show that local prosecutors prefer to incarcerate African-
Americans and usually incarcerate people of low-income,
not represented by private attorneys.
While State’s Attorney Rietz cannot comprehend what
black people are so upset about, she does understand the
plight of her legal colleagues trying to eek out a living. Rietz,
herself, was once a private attorney. She knows that defense
attorneys who can successfully get their clients good deals
from the prosecutors can expect more business. In Champaign
County, the ability to pay a private attorney is too often
equivalent to deserving no jail time. These double standards
of the Champaign county’s “Just-Us” system would be kept a
better secret if cops do not drink after work.

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