Tuesday, July 10, 2001

Prosecutor tough on riot cases


All but one of 44 felony defendants convicted

By Marie McCain
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Hours before a citywide curfew banished residents from Cincinnati's nighttime streets, Hamilton County Prosecutor Mike Allen promised that prosecution of riot-related felonies would be vigorous, the punishments unyielding.

        Three months after that April 12 declaration, 44 of the 66 felony cases stemming from the riots have made their way through the courts. An Enquirer review of the cases shows that:

        • All but one of the 44 defendants were convicted of all original felony charges, including breaking and entering and aggravated riot.

        • Twenty-five convicted felons have been sentenced so far, and of those, 20 have been sent to prison or jail for terms ranging from 30 days to 15 months.

        • Five convicted felons al so have been ordered to pay restitution — more than $500,000 total — for damage to businesses.

        • Judges have allowed no plea bargains that might lessen a defendant's penalty.

        “I said this from the beginning: The quickest way to encourage this kind of activity is to be soft on it,” Mr. Allen says. “The vast majority of the people want me to come down hard.”

        Still, some of the most serious offenses, a weapons violation and a hate crime, have yet to go to court. Defendants in those two cases are among 22 awaiting trials.

        Ten of those are still in jail, unable to make bond that typically was set at $20,000 each.

        In a move designed “to make a point,” one judge ordered three convicted fel ons each to pay $167,757 to a Deveroes clothing store, even though it's unlikely the felons could ever make payments. Deveroes, one of the most heavily looted businesses in the riots, was named as a victim in 25 of the 66 felony cases.

        Hamilton County Common Pleas Judge Mark R. Schweikert says he “didn't really expect them to pay that amount,” but hopes “the punishment will prevent this from happening again.”

        Howard Shaw, 44, of Evanston; Courtney Brown, 18, of Avondale; and Jason Brooks, 20, of Bond Hill were convicted in May of looting the retailer's Swifton Commons store early April 12. Besides restitution, each received five years probation and jail time.

        Judge Schweikert says he plans to make “an appropriate adjustment” to the resti tution amounts when each returns to court later this year for status reports.

        “For now, though, I want them to think about that $167,000,” the judge says.

        Some defense attorneys believe these sentences prove that both the prosecutor's office and some common pleas judges have been influenced by the international attention that Cincinnati's riots received.

        “Many of the charges were harsher than they had to be,” says William Gallagher, head of the board of directors for the Greater Cincinnati Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

        This group, along with the Greater Cincinnati Black Lawyers Association, worked to provide free defense for some of those charged with riot felonies.

        “Judges are refusing to consider plea agreements. By doing so, it creates a whole class of people who aren't being treated fairly,” Mr. Gallagher says.

        He cites the case of James W. Clark, 22, of Cumminsville, who was charged with breaking and entering.

        Appearing before Hamilton County Common Pleas Judge Robert P. Ruehlman, Mr. Clark's attorney offered a plea agreement, which the judge rejected.

        Judge Ruehlman says he didn't want to be locked into sentencing that the plea agreement offered.

        “(Mr. Clark) was willing to plead and would have spent time in prison based on the plea, but I wanted everything to be fair,” the judge says. “For Mr. Clark, things turned out better that way.”

        On May 31, a jury acquitted him of the more serious felony, which could have landed him in prison up to a year, and convicted him of misdemeanor criminal damaging.

        He was sentenced to the maximum 30 days in jail and released on time served. He also was ordered to pay court costs.
       

Posting $20,000 bond
               Besides the 66 felonies in Common Pleas Court, there were more than 800 arrests for misdemeanors, crimes that lack the serious nature of the felonies. These lesser charges included curfew violation, criminal trespass and disorderly conduct.

        Initially, there were complaints that bonds were being set too high.

        On average, felony defendants had to post a $20,000 cash bond to get out of jail while awaiting trial. Just 18 made bond. Two of those who got out fled and had to be rearrested.

        The two, Craig Carr and Donald Hope, are charged with the most serious felonies. Mr. Carr, one of two white defendants, is charged with a hate crime for throwing a brick through the window of an African-American motorist's car and using racial slurs. Mr. Hope is charged with carrying a concealed weapon.

        “I didn't have any problem with (the amount of the bonds) then or now,” says Hamilton County Common Pleas Judge Steven E. Martin, who arraigned most of the felony defendants and assigned their bonds.

        “There was a lot of signifi cant looting going on. I was concerned that if the bonds were not appropriate, a lot people would just have disappeared and never been seen again.”
       

Service to community
               Judges also say they aren't influenced by public opinion.

        Some continue to use their sentencing powers to send messages critical of the worst unrest Cincinnati has experienced since 1968.

        Staying within Ohio sentencing guidelines, they have blended their punishment orders to include not just incarceration and restitution, but community service.

        Reginald Grady, 21, of Price Hill, pleaded guilty June 4 before Hamilton County Common Pleas Judge Thomas C. Nurre to felony breaking and entering and felony aggravated riot for helping to loot another Deveroes store.

        As punishment, he received six months in jail with credit for time served and three years probation. He also must perform 120 hours of community service in Over-the-Rhine, where most of the rioting occurred, and pay $1,000 in restitution and court costs.

        “I think that what happened was a riot,” Judge Martin says. “It wasn't civil disobedience. It wasn't protest.

        “I have no doubt that there were some people who were legitimately frustrated and engaged in legal, nonviolent protest.” he says “But those who were looting the stores were just committing criminal acts.”

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