Plea Bargains for Election Tire Slashers
The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reports that four Kerry-Edwards staffers who slashed tires of Republican Party vans that were to take voters to the polls have been allowed to plead guilty to misdemeanor charges.
In an unexpected twist in the Election Day tire slashing trial, four former Kerry-Edwards campaign staffers, including the sons of U.S. Rep. Gwen Moore (D-Milwaukee) and former Acting Mayor Marvin Pratt, have agreed to plead no contest to misdemeanors. The plea agreements came in the middle of jury deliberations after an eight-day trial on felony property damage charges that carried potential 3 1/2 year prison terms upon conviction.
Michael Pratt, 33, Sowande Omokunde, 26, Lewis G. Caldwell, 29, and Lavelle Mohammad, 36, have all pleaded no contest to misdemeanor counts of criminal damage to property. Omokunde is Moore’s son.
Prosecutors will recommend probation sentences as part of the deal, and that the four together pay $5,317 in restitution for the damaged tires. The surprise resolution was offered by prosecutors at 2 p.m., nearly 7 hours into deliberations and an hour after a jury note complained of an impasse.
Milwaukee blogger Sean Hackbarth thinks this a gross miscarriage of justice and rounds up some other reactions.
Milwaukee District Attorney E. Michael McCann’s office is known as a plea bargain machine. Conservatives were pleasantly surprised when his office took the Milwaukee 5 to trial. Prosecutors went through eight days of testimony and arguments and put it in the jury’s hands. Until a few hours ago it seemed like we would have a verdict, but that wasn’t the case.
He has followed the case much more closely than I have (indeed, I haven’t thought about it much since it was first reported) and certainly has a better feel for the nature of McCann’s conduct. It could well be, though, that the threat of a deadlocked jury was real and he judged this better than re-trying the case. Certainly, a second trial would have come at great expense to the taxpayers and neither victory nor a near-maximum sentence would have been a foregone conclusion.
A CourtTV report gives some credence to the idea that it was not a slam dunk:
[P]rosecutors hope that the testimony of Opel Simmons III, a Virginia-based campaign strategist brought in to energize black voters in Milwaukee, will help jurors connect the dots. Simmons, along with four other members of the get-out-the-vote team, testified that the five defendants came back to the office bragging about deflating the tires. “If these defendants had not gone back and bragged to their co-workers, they would have gotten away with it,” Assistant District Attorney David Feiss said during closing arguments Thursday.
It remains to be seen, however, if jurors will believe the testimony of Simmons and his co-workers, all of whom admitted lying, or as Simmons put it, telling “a vague variation of the truth,” to investigators when they were initially interviewed. Simmons himself was an initial suspect in the case and gave up the names of the five defendants only after being held in custody for more than 36 hours. “These people were willing to change stories to achieve a desired result,” Rodney Cubbie, Michael Pratt’s lawyer, told jurors during closing arguments.
It should be noted that the most serious charges, those against Justin Howell, were not dropped.
Still, this outcome has to be deflating considering where the case was 24 hours ago. CourtTV again:
It started out with an alert security guard noticing a man urinating on a wall. Then the distinct sound of tires deflating. Now, two sons of prominent Wisconsin politicians and their three friends could end up in prison for allegedly attempting to sabotage a Republican effort to drive voters to the polls for the 2004 presidential election.
Jurors began deliberating this afternoon in the politically charged trial of five Democratic activists who are accused of slashing the tires of 25 vans rented by the Republican Party to shuttle voters to the polls for the Bush-Kerry presidential election. In what is perhaps the most extensive Wisconsin case involving a tire-slashing, jurors heard from 16 state witnesses and three defense witnesses during the nearly two-week trial that pitted local Democrats against national Democrats and revisited campaign “shenanigans” from both parties.
Republican campaigners had rented more than 100 vehicles for a get-out-the-vote campaign. The vehicles were parked in a lot adjacent to a Bush campaign office, and party workers planned to drive poll watchers to polling places by 7 a.m. on Nov. 2 to deliver any voters who needed a ride.
The state contends that the five men, all local campaign workers, left Democratic campaign headquarters and punctured the tires of vans parked around the perimeter of a staging area so that the vehicles inside couldn’t leave.
Attorneys for the five defendants, however, argued that the slashings were part of a broader national campaign by the Democrats to prevent a large Republican turnout in key states, and pointed to several “out-of-state political operatives” brought in by the Democrats as the culprits.
What’s really interesting to me isn’t so much that some people who probably slashed some tires aren’t getting substantial jail time but rather that their attorneys are claiming a widespread criminal conspiracy on the part of the Democratic Party and neither the press nor the Democratic Party seems particularly interested. It is an absolutely outrageous charge and one that the Democrats would seem to want to deny vehemently. Of course, if the press doesn’t air it, then there’s not much need for damage control.