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Thoughts on two recent court cases

Posted: Thursday, Jan 30th, 2014

I may not like some of the ways our court system works but I can say that if one looks at the legal systems of other countries, we are most fortunate to have the system we do have, even if it needs some major repairs.

The recent furor over two cases (Jerry Brunow, who was charged with 17 counts involving child abuse, and Nathan Mackie, who was recently sent to prison for repeatedly smoking pot) that went through our courts and the nature of those cases prompt many of us to become very emotional and even upset with our judicial system. Maybe that’s right and proper but to truly understand how it all works we need to see it from the inside.

I have mentioned this in my columns before and in many of the articles I’ve written since coming to work for the Herald, but I will say this again: most court cases are open to the public. Anyone can go into the courts and watch what happens for themselves so they gain a clearer picture of how the process works. If anyone out there is concerned about the state of our court system, I suggest they do just that.

Plea agreements are worked out between lawyers.

In criminal cases they are worked out between a prosecuting attorney and a defense attorney. Usually — and rightly so, since it is their sworn duty — the defense attorney will try to get the very best plea agreement for his or her client. The prosecuting attorney, on the other hand, tries to get an agreement that does the best for the victim and punishes the perpetrator.

One side says, “We’ll accept this but we won’t accept that.” The other side says, “Well, we’ll offer this but we won’t offer that.” And this back-and-forth goes on until an agreement is reached that both parties can live with. Many times in these negotiations the defendant and the victim are consulted and have input into the negotiations.

When the plea agreement finally makes it into court, the judge has the right to accept or reject the plea agreement. If the judge rejects the agreement, the case goes to trial.

If the case goes to trial, the burden of proving the validity of the case and the guilt of the defendant rests solely on the shoulders of the prosecutors. The defense doesn’t even have to present a case if they don’t want to or if they feel it is not in the best interest of the defendant.

One facet of our judicial system that I understand after all the days I’ve spent in courtrooms that I don’t completely agree with is the shift from incarceration to rehabilitation.

I do understand that incarceration has been proven not to work in most cases and as soon as the person incarcerated gets out of jail or prison they simply return to their old ways, placing a great burden on society.

In many cases rehabilitation and education actually do work but the recidivism rate, the rate at which perpetrators fall back into their old habits after successfully going through rehabilitation programs, is still extremely high.

If education and rehabilitation are indeed the answer to this burden on society, then rehabilitation programs need a great deal of improvement, in my opinion, because I have seen individuals come and go through the court systems over and over again, even after successfully completing outpatient and long-term inpatient programs.

That tells me something critical is being missed in the re-education of those who exhibit criminal behavior.

Some perpetrators fall into the category of people who simple cannot or will not be helped in order to live within society.

I have heard a lot of comments about the two cases I mentioned at the beginning of this column. Many are outraged but there is a slight problem with at least a portion of each case.

In the case of the pot smoker who was sent to prison, he wasn’t simply a pot smoker. The facts are out there for those who wish to know. This individual started through the courts in 2010 and time after time was sent to rehab or various programs and given lenient sentences or only probation until he committed a felony and was convicted.

After that conviction and while on probation for that crime, he continued to break the law and violate his probation in that felony case.

The citizens of Uinta County have paid the bills for the court appearances, jail time, public defender fees, prosecuting attorney’s time and wages and ever so much more. This individual cost us thousands of dollars in public funds and had no remorse at all for doing so. It was time for Mackie to pay the piper.

Though we have questions about why the Brunow case turned out the way it did, there are two factors that have to be considered. I did not speak with the victim in this case but the testimony in court supports the fact that what she wanted was for the defendant to admit his wrongdoing so she could get on with her life and put all this behind her. Testimony also showed the victim had relayed this information to the county attorney.

I don’t know how much influence that had on the decision that was made in the plea agreement process but I think we, as those on the outside of the case, should consider the fact that was what she said she wanted.

I do disagree with the sentence this defendant was given but I’m not an attorney and don’t know all the facts in the case. What I do know is that in Uinta County no case involving sexual crimes is open to the public or the news media until the defendant has been arraigned in District Court. All proceedings up to that point are closed to the public according to the law.

Without the information from the closed hearings and proceedings, it is extremely difficult to know why such a plea agreement was agreed to or why it was accepted on that last day in court.

This column gives me the opportunity to voice my personal opinions and that’s what I do. In my court reporting, however, my job — no matter how hard it is to do — is to state the facts as they happen in the courtroom. That’s being a professional journalist and that’s what I do when I cover court cases.

I will say this: I believe Brunow should have received incarceration time — for at least the same length of time that he abused his daughter — for the crime he admitted to but I wasn’t in the room when the plea agreement was negotiated nor was I there when the victim talked with the county attorneys.

Without the rest of the information at hand, I have no way to judge whether this was done for the best interests of the victim or not. I can only hope it was.

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