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For the IMC Newsroom
URBANA- Democrat Julia Rietz, Champaign County State’s Attorney, swooned for the press that her recent winning election results show that the public "likes what they see coming out of her office." Try selling that to the neighborhoods north of University Avenue.
Certainly, it won’t sell during the uproar over Champaign Police Detective Lisa Staples lenient treatment received after the detective's 2:30 a.m. driving rampage in an unmarked squad car, drunk and going the wrong way into head-on traffic on I-72.
Married to an officer, Rietz has been consistent to insure 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 infractions such as rape, falsified police reports, torture, stalking, and domestic battery done by officers.
Rietz often ducks the responsibility of prosecuting an officer citing conflicts of interest. Lucky for Rietz, the blame for who actually tilted the scales of justice gets placed on an unknown special prosecutor appointed in 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, selecting a Ford County prosecutor to handle a DUI case, as Champaign County Circuit Judge Mike Jones revealed on WDWS’s Penny For Your Thoughts Show recently, was a choice made knowing how Ford County prosecutors handle first-time DUI’s- far easier 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 and 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 case against Urbana Police Officer Kurt Hjort who was accused of rape, Judge Tom Difanis chose a former-employee in his state’s attorney’s office, James Dedman, now a private defense attorney- to prosecute Officer Hjort. Dedman is known around the county as one of the laziest and most timid of trial lawyers, and to no one’s surprise, Dedman 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 Hjort was supposed to be on duty.
In the Brady Smith case, a middle school dean accused of sexually abusing African-American boys, former State’s Attorney John Piland allowed a close friend of Brady Smith, Elizabeth Dobson, to prosecute her friend. 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 how justice gets distributed.
We sleepy Christmas consumers will be content to let Rietz wait until the smoke clears over Staples. Later, Rietz will make a public example out of Elizabeth Drewes- another drunk driver who recently killed a young bride-to-be of 24. Detective Staples will be back at her desk*, long forgotten, by the time Rietz will be gloating into television cameras again explaining how "pleased" she is Ms. Drewes won't be getting out of prison in this lifetime. A big media splash over Drewes will help the voters forget about the favors done for Detective Staples.
Most of us remember very little. 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 also don't remember the pampered treatment given to U of I student, Dongki Yoon** who was driving drunk on campus, killing pedestrian, Nadia Chowdhury, age 20. Yoon left the scene of the accident. Yoon served two months in the county jail in between semesters.
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, the decision to charge what kind of crime, and the ability to recommend a sentence are some of the superpowers granted to state's attorneys. The 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 an offender.
Rietz offered Myers the lightest sentence of conditional discharge, 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.
Cases that involve middle school deans, cops, dentists, bank tellers, restaurant owners, U of I students, and the like reveal how this discretion is used. The outrage North End families have is not because they want to see Dectective 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 have been neglected for so long that 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 does a crime so infamous, like in the case of 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.
Jon White was the exception. Normally, white pedophiles are given very lenient sentences. Robert Arnette 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 Arnette’s estranged wife, Naomi.
Justifying her lenient treatment for cops and professionals, Rietz often snaps that the professional white people she dares to prosecute did lose their job, afterall, 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 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 this 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 really tracking significant information after verdicts? Not likely. Like the traffic study that police were required to do, the results of an objective study at the courthouse might show local prosecutors preferring to incarcerate African-Americans, and always 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 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 equivalent to deserving a community-based sentence. These double standards of the Champaign County “Just-Us” system would be kept a better secret if cops wouldn’t drink after work.
* Lisa Staples resigned January 5, 2009. She remains quailified to receive a pension from the City of Champaign, and could potentially still get a job in law enforcement. After Urbana Police Officer Kurt Hjort was allowed to resign from the Urbana Police Department, (again, to protect a pension,) Hjort was hired to be a patrolman in the Gibson City Police Department. News of the hire was leaked to The News-Gazette, and officials in Gibson City rescinded their job offer to Hjort.
**for earlier readers of this article, there has been a retraction in the facts of the Choudhury case. See thread below for details.