Smile Politely

So long, Richard

Courtroom drama is usually a category of television show or film. Law & Order, 12 Angry Men, and the lot seem to draw eyes and interest because as a society we’re interested in justice. We’re interested in seeing whether or not the DA’s office can put criminals away or if they can make just the right deal to get a key witness to testify. It’s fascinating and takes great writing to evoke realism out of courtroom without bogging down the story with the mundane.

In real life it’s a bit different. Court cases are slowed by motions from lawyers, continuances issued by judges, and everything in between. It’s boring. Courthouse reporters are saints for basically summarizing entire cases for public consumption. Those folks are responsible for allowing me to dig deeper into the firing of Judge Richard Klaus.

Klaus, if you were unaware, was relieved of his duties by the Sixth Circuit because both lawyers and the public lost their confidence in his ability to oversee cases properly. That’s a hell of a charge to level against someone whose sole job is to be fair. It’s also the first time in almost 40 years that something like this has happened in Champaign County.

Klaus’s history is an interesting one, as there have been a number of inconsistencies in the way that he rules. The most glaring of these interesting decisions was the acceptance of a plea deal for former Champaign police detective Lisa Staples in 2008. In 2010, Brian Dolinar did a great job uncovering what happened. The long and short of the story is this, Staples was extremely drunk (to the point of urinating on herself) and was driving the wrong way down I-72 at 2:30 in the morning. She was also driving a Nissan Altima owned by the Champaign Police Department. The offense should have been fireable, and by Illinois law Staples really shouldn’t have had a drivers license. The prosecutors and the defense attorneys agreed for a sweetheart deal that would allow Staples to keep her license and essentially her job. Klaus accepted the deal.

In 2014, Kathryn Daly had been drinking at a family farm and was taking some family members on a Gator SFUV. The Gator tipped over and one of her cousins fell off and was killed. Daly was arrested and charged with reckless homicide. The prosecutors and defense agreed to a plea that would ask Richard Klaus for probation with no prison time. Daly’s aunt and uncle (the parents of the deceased) also pled for leniency. Klaus rejected the plea and sentenced Daly, a nurse and mother to a 2 year-old, to 3 1/2 years in prison. Daly appealed and the State Appellate Prosecutor ruled that “Klaus abused his discretion.”

Klaus was eventually overruled by the Appellate Court, which is as big of a slap in the face to the judge’s decision to reject a plea as there is.

Klaus also oversaw the controversial Willie Craft case, in which Craft went into a diabetic coma and crashed his car into two students, killing one of them. Klaus ruled that he had employed his “vehicle as a lethal weapon.” Despite having no criminal record, Craft was sentenced to 3 1/2 years in prison as well. He then sentenced his son, Willie Craft Jr., to 6 months in county jail for having an outburst after sentencing.

Klaus also sentenced former Illini guard Rich McBride in his DUI case. In this instance, though, he sentenced him to 250 hours of community service and $1,000 fine. Granted, McBride didn’t kill anyone.

Finally, amongst other fairly controversial rulings that Klaus has participated in is the sentencing of Timothy Bretz. Bretz was involved in a crash that killed a 19 year old. Brit was driving a semitrailer truck and the teen was driving a Buick. They collided at an unmarked rural intersection in southern Champaign County and the teen’s car became trapped underneath the truck.

Bretz was ruled to have had cannabis metabolites in his blood from smoking pot two weeks prior and so he was charged with a class 2 felony DUI. The state asked for five years in prison for Bretz, Klaus instead decided to give him 8 years.

This isn’t an argument over whether or not the parties were or are guilty of crimes. This is just pointing out a pattern of inconsistencies from a judge.

It’s not hard to understand why the public and peers weren’t interested in keeping Klaus around as a judge. It’s impossible to give the local justice system any credibility when a judge is inconsistent and certainly injudicious.

You certainly feel for the victims of these crimes, no doubt, but there should also be some thought and at the very least empathy for the families of those convicted — especially when they’ve already dealt with loss (as in the Daly case), health issues (as in Craft’s case), and an inconclusive at best explanation for a DUI (as in the Bretz case).

Even just looking at the comments sections of the articles linked above, you can tell there had been a growing resentment towards Klaus from Champaign County. That’s the opposite of what we should expect as taxpayers. Justice takes hard work and the use of organ that’s between one’s ears. The second someone in the judicial system isn’t interested in either of those things, it’s time to go.

That time has apparently come for Klaus, and Champaign County can thank his colleagues for acknowledging that.

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