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.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2004, Law and the Courts, , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Anderson says:

    Has any 1st-time-offender tire slasher ever been sentenced to three and a half years in prison? Just a little disproportionate, says me.

    A civil suit for punitive damages sounds like a lot better way to go. Stick the little jerks for five times the cost of the tires.

  2. DAV says:

    I’m still waiting for Diebold to be charged with election fraud in Ohio.

  3. James Joyner says:

    Anderson: The outrage isn’t about the tire slashing but doing it to influence an election. Granted that they weren’t actually charged with that, it would surely have figured into the sentencing.

  4. Herb says:

    What more would you expect from a Milwaukee “justice system”?

    Looks like something might have changed hands with this development or is just plain crooked politician’s spreading their influence around.

  5. angry in WI says:

    “I’m still waiting for Diebold to be charged with election fraud in Ohio.”

    On what grounds? That your guy didn’t win?

  6. Mark says:

    You don’t get it, Andersen. This wasn’t a random act of juvenile vandalism. This was a deliberate attempt to interfere with an election and obstruct peoples’ right to vote.

  7. Elmo says:

    This story is new to me. Easily one of the most disgusting things I’ve encountered in my internet life. While many joke about abuse in prison, with 3.5 yr sentences, they’ll be out in a much shorter interval. I do honestly hope their lives throughout their days on earth are filled with the pure evil they have visited upon this nation. Words cannot express.

  8. Anderson says:

    Right, Mark, but as JJ points out, they weren’t charged with that. In America, you go to jail (or not) for what you’re charged with, not for what you *weren’t* charged with. One of the things that is supposed to distinguish us from the bad guys.

  9. McGehee says:

    Anderson, judges take aggravating (as well as extenuating) circumstances into account in sentencing — or rather, they’re supposed to.

  10. doubled says:

    I just want to comment that the portion about the “widespread criminal conspiracy on the part of the Democratic Party.” I’ve seen this story on a few blogs and everyone touches on how nobody cares to talk about this mass Democratic conspiracy. But nobody takes the time to research that there was a year long investigation on the matter, in which US Attorney Steve Biskupic (a Republican for what it’s worth) announced there was no evidence of a mass Democratic conspiracy in the Wisconsin elections and with the Milwaukee 5. In the end Biskupic pressed charged on I believe 20 some individuals, in no related manners.