Thursday, February 21, 2013

Convicted Of Murder And Still Above The Law?


The case of former Bolingbrook, Illinois, police officer Drew Peterson is troubling in many respects, not the least of which is the fact that not one but two of Mr. Peterson’s former wives died and/or went missing under suspicious circumstances. But Mr. Peterson’s conviction for the murder of his third wife, Kathleen Savio, is also troubling in that it was based in no small part on questionable hearsay testimony; specifically, witnesses were allowed to testify to statements allegedly made by both Savio and Peterson’s fourth wife, Stacy Peterson, who is missing and presumed dead.
Today, though, was not the day to address the legal issues arising out of Mr. Peterson’s conviction. Those issues will be addressed, as they should be, on appeal. Rather, today was the day Drew Peterson was to be sentenced on a conviction that, for now, has to be considered perfectly valid. And he was sentenced – to thirty-eight years in prison, including credit for the four years he’s served to date. Peterson will have to serve every one of the remaining thirty-four years he has coming, which means he won’t be released until he’s 93 years old.
Nonetheless, Peterson’s sentencing, like so many aspects of his case, is troubling, too. That’s because, according to the Chicago Tribune:
Peterson had faced as much as 60 years, but Judge Edward Burmila said he gave Peterson some consideration for his years as a police officer and his service in the military.
Let me stop here for a moment and interject the obvious: I wasn’t at the sentencing hearing, and the Tribune article provides little more by way of an explanation for the Judge’s sentencing decision. So there may be more to it than that.
But if the Tribune accurately characterized the basis of Judge Burmila’s decision not to impose a longer sentence, the decision itself is rather disconcerting. First, Peterson expressed no remorse; instead, the Tribune says, “he screamed, ‘I did not kill Kathleen!’,” and launched into a bizarre diatribe in which he attacked the investigation, his prosecutors, and the criminal justice system as a whole. I’m not a criminal lawyer, but it’s axiomatic that a convicted defendant will ordinarily receive a harsher sentence if he refuses to acknowledge his guilt and apologize for what he’s done – even if he intends to appeal the underlying conviction.
Second, it’s puzzling, to say the least, that the Judge “gave Peterson some consideration for his years as a police officer.” Note that this is not a case where an individual served as a police officer years ago, then committed a crime later in life after having left the force. Peterson was convicted of killing Savio while he was serving as a police officer. You would think that committing murder while you’re a police officer would actually make matters worse, not better.
You’d think that, and you’d be right – at least, according to the law. In Illinois, judges sentencing criminal defendants to prison time are supposed to consider a series of mitigating and aggravating factors that are set out in Sections 5-5-3.1 and 5-5-3.2, respectively, of the Unified Code of Corrections. See 730 ILCS 5/5-5-3.1, 5-5-3.2. You will search Section 5-5-3.1 in vain to find “being a police officer” listed among the mitigating factors a judge is supposed to consider. You will, however, find that the judge is supposed to consider whether “[t]he character and attitudes of the defendant indicate that he is unlikely to commit another crime” (730 ILCS 5/5-5-3.1(a)(9)) – which is why showing remorse is considered to be so important.
On the other hand, you’ll also find, among the aggravating factors that may lead a judge to lengthen a sentence, the following:
[Whether] the defendant, by the duties of his office or by his position, was obliged to prevent the particular offense committed or to bring the offenders committing it to justice …
730 ILCS 5/5-5-3.2(a)(6). That provision doesn’t mean a police officer who commits a crime should automatically be sentenced more harshly than another individual who commits the same crime, but it does mean that when an police officer violates the trust the public puts in him, the court should at least consider whether that merits a harsher sentence.
Here, the jury found that Peterson committed murder – one of the crimes he’s supposed to prevent – at a time when he was a police officer. And, of course, being a police officer put Peterson in a position to cover his tracks, and possibly to influence the outcome of the initial investigation into Savio’s murder. We’ll probably never know why that investigation went awry, but there’s little doubt that when a police officer murders his wife, or anyone else for that matter, he violates the public trust in the worst possible way.
So it’s hard to understand why the fact that Peterson was a police officer should weigh in his favor in the sentencing decision.
Of course, as a practical matter, it may make little or no difference whether Peterson was sentenced to 38 years or the full 60 years permitted under the law. He’ll probably die in prison anyway. But the larger issue here is whether there is a separate legal standard that benefits police officers when they commit crimes and thereby violate the public trust. And given a handful of notorious cases in the Chicago area over the past few years, it’s not unreasonable to ask whether such a double standard exists.
In addition to Peterson, there was the case of Anthony Abbate, who received two years probation after viciously beating Karolina Obrycka in a bar in 2007 – a sentence many of us felt was exceedingly light under the circumstances. But at least Abbate was convicted of aggravated battery in that case; in 2009 a judge acquitted Chicago Police Officers Paul Powers and Gregory Barnes and Sgt. Jeffery Planey of aggravated battery in connection with a brawl outside another tavern, a decision that raised more than a few eyebrows here. And then there was this case from August 2010:
When off-duty Chicago Police Officer John Ardelean, 36, was involved in a suspected DUI accident on Thanksgiving that killed two people — Miguel Flores, 22, and Erick Lagunas, 21 — he was not arrested immediately after the crash or at the hospital. Instead, a police Lt. John Magruder ordered him arrested hours after the crash when he smelled alcohol on the officer. An judge has now thrown out the charges due to a lack of probable cause.
Of course, each of these cases has to be evaluated on its own merits, but when incident after incident occurs in which it appears as though police officers charged with serious offenses – murder, aggravated battery, DUI that results in fatalities – are given particularly lenient treatment in comparison to non-officer offenders charged with similar crimes, the courts have an obligation to address the growing distrust the public feels in the administration of justice. Maybe there is a rational explanation for the results in each of those cases, but you can’t fault the public for perceiving the existence of a double standard that protects cops gone bad.
At a minimum, I would think that Drew Peterson’s judge would have wanted to avoid adding to that perception today.

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