One of the events I covered during my day-job as a journalist is also one of the reasons I decided to create a blog. One of my beats at my current paper is covering the county court beat.
I live in a fairly rural county in northwestern Wisconsin and we have a lot of lakes and woods, perfect for tourism and sportsmen and the like. Despite the ideal setting, I’ve covered more murder trials than you might suspect, but what is really rampant up here is child sexual abuse. Sure, compared to the population we have, it’s less than a handful of offenders, but the problem seems to be on the rise and it’s become disturbing how often I see that as the lead charge on a court docket.
But one case stands out in mind. For the sake of legalities and protecting innocent relatives of the accused, I’ll simply refer to him by the fictional initials of A.B.C.
A.B.C. was first arrested and charged in this case back in October 2001. After a November 2001 initial appearance, a motion for “change of judge” was filed. That’s because we have a local judge who actually sentences… you know… according to the law. As his replacement was a neighboring judge, who I’ll fictionally name Judge Talk Tough, who served on the case for the remainder of the legal process. The replacement judge’s fictional name should clue you in on all you need to know about him. From the January 2002 preliminary hearing and on, it was all Judge Talk Tough.
When the complaint was initially filed against A.B.C, it included no less than 42 felony counts, including 37 counts involving illegal sexual activity with a minor, including repeated sexual assaul of the same child (multiple victims), causing a child between the ages of 13-18 to view sexual activity and exposing a child to harmful material. The remaining five felonies were related to illegal deer hunting. Naturally. Hey, we’re a hunting region, right?
Anyway, after reading deep into the case files, the story behind the charges soon became clear: this fellow had worked with children through two local churches as a lay-staff volunteer. Some of them, he’d invite over to his house from time to time. Eventually, with several victims ranging in age from seven to 17, sometimes more than one victim at a time, he’d pop in some porn videos, initiate sexual touching and, in some cases, full-on sexual activity.
The nature of the crime sounds bad enough, right? Lock the guy up and toss the key into Lake Superior, right? Nope.
The guy was released on a mere $15,000 cash bond, maybe a lot for local standards and incomes, but postable. And post it he did. And then the legal delays began, as well as the negotiations. Time ticked by. Finally, on December 10, 2003… do you think he had his day in court? No. Sorry. Not even close.
During the interim, the local district attorney – admittedly overworked and overwhelmed – got brow-beaten by A.B.C.’s attorney over his chances of winning at trial. And, with A.B.C. free on bond… several of the victims decided not to testify. Thus, 42 total felonies with 37 child-sex felonies ultimately became… eight total felonies with seven child-sex felonies included. The rest – 34 felonies in all – were never even pressed forward.
Well, that’s fine, right? I mean, eight felonies is certainly enough to send the creep deep into the state prison system till he’s old and gray and exiting in a casket, right? Again, no.
Because the case never got to trial. Even after dropping all but eight counts, the local DA decided not to go to trial and accepted a plea agreement. And it was one that certainly favored A.B.C.
When the dust of the plea agreement settled, A.B.C. was found guilty of… get ready for it… one felony count. One. Just one. Out of 42 originally. Pretty nifty plea bargain, eh? But it doesn’t end there.
Judge Talk Tough, at sentencing in April 2004, after the mandatory presentence investigation, gave a hellfire and brimstone speech that would make Johnathon Edwards shiver; then he sentenced A.B.C. to… get ready for it… 25 years in state prison. 25 years. Not even one year for every felony originally filed. Just over three years for every count pressed forward. But it gets better… for A.B.C., at least.
In accordance with Wisconsin’s “truth in sentencing” guidelines, a judge can apportion how much of a prison sentence is spent in the slammer, and how much is spent on “extended supervision,” a euphamism for living back in the community where you committed your crime, with an electronic monitor on your ankle so the cops can find you if you’re not where you’re supposed to be. And despite his hellfire-and-brimstone speech, Judge Talk Tough decided that a guy who at one time faced 42 felony counts only needed to spend … six years in confinement in a state prison facility and the remaining 19 years on “extended release.”
Six years in. Six. For a 42-count set of charges. That’s a mere 1.7 months per count from the original criminal complaint. Then he’s out in the community, on a monitor.
But it’s not really six years, either. He’d already spent, over the course of time, two-thirds of a year in local jail. So it’s five years and four months. But it’s not even that, because with good behavior he can earn his way out of state prison steel bars even earlier. He’ll likely be back in the community on “extended release” before 2010.
Way to make the victims feel safe, eh?
But, sadly, this isn’t the worst part. The worst part was buried deep in the court file, among the documents considered in the pre-sentence investigation. Among the various pleas for leniency from family and close friends – too close to see the darkness of A.B.C.’s actions, apparently – were two letters. From local pastors. And not just any local pastors, but pastors of the churches from which he met and selected his victims.
Were the letters pleas to the court to protect their children, as one might expect? Get used to hearing this: No.
Instead, both letters, in nearly carbon-copy language, begged the judge not to sentence A.B.C. to any jail time at all. Their reasoning? A cliche so annoying I hate even repeating it here…
They wrote, “The embarrassment of these charges going public and being published in the local paper is punishment enough. He’ll have to live with this guilt and what he did for the rest of his life. He needs counseling, not prison time. So please, don’t put A.B.C. in prison. He doesn’t belong there.”
Look, you expect that from relatives and friends who might be in denial. You expect it. But from pastors? Men of God? What are we coming to? It’s things like this that make it hard not to become a wonderful pessimist.
Sure, I can imagine a rationalization for this: “Well, he’s a member of our flock, so we have to shepherd him. Christ never abandoned his flock, he died for them.”
But that’s misleading; a shepherd’s first job is to keep the flock safe from the wolves. And Jesus said, of anyone who harms children, “It would be better for him if a millstone were tied around his neck and he was cast into the ocean.”
What about shepherding the kids this guy violated? Maybe that should be somewhere on the list? Maybe? You think?
Sorry, but I choose to disagree with these so-called “men of God.” The embarrassment of his crimes being known isn’t punishment enough. “Living with what he did” isn’t punishment at all. Does the man need counseling? Sure.
But he also needs jail time. And a whole lot more than six years inside a prison and 19 years on the post-prison version of probation.
Anyway, that’s the way I see it. But I’m just a wonderful pessimist.