By Mark David Blum, Esq.
As a defense attorney, I make it a rule to keep my mouth shut and hold back my opinions when I hear or read about a citizen sentenced for a crime. The more obnoxious the sentence, the more I struggle to maintain my silence. After all, I am trapped: If I complain about lenient sentences, then whom am I to complain when my own client feels the wrath of the Court?
The best example of being torn between the horns of the dilemma was recently here in Manlius with the High School computer tampering case. In all my years of practice, I have never seen this District Attorney work harder to secure a lighter sentence for a defendant. Unheard of in my business and definitely not the behavior of that office when it comes to other defendants, still I kept my mouth shut. There may come a day when I too will need the District Attorney to break his back to ease the sentence for one of my clients.
But this morning, I come to learn about Judge Fahey sentencing a corrupt former Deputy Sheriff to five years probation. That sentence cannot go by without comment.
For years when speaking in public on the subject of the Drug War and corruption of the system, one of my favorite lines comes at the end of a crescendo building paragraph. “If we cannot keep drugs out of our prisons, how are we ever going to keep them out of a free society?” At this point, I always pause for the apple sauce that follows. It was once famously quipped that you should not do drugs because if you do drugs, you will go to prison and drugs are very expensive in prison.
Before Judge Fahey stood a 17 year veteran former deputy convicted of smuggling drugs, alcohol, and cigarettes into the jail, and accepting bribes to do so. Whining about being under some undisclosed financial pressure (welcome to the world), the deputy’s worst pain was to be fired and placed on probation. With due respect to Judge Fahey, that sentence reeks of favoritism and has the appearance of impropriety. No, I do not accuse the Judge of doing wrong. But I can say that in my opinion, other persons similarly situated in front of any other judge or who did not wear the uniform, would not have walked away so easily. Even more importantly, they should not be so allowed.
Hardly ever are the times that I agree with Assistant District Attorney Michael Ferrante, but on this issue he was dead on. “He deserved jail time as a deterrent to others.” Ferrante also pointed out, “many people in the community earn far less than Chavers' $42,000 annual salary without turning to crime to address financial difficulties.” I couldn’t agree more.
I know and have met people over the years who earn far less than half of what that deputy earned and who would never have the benefits package that deputy gave up. Not a one of these people would violate anybody’s trust. Every one of them would love a job that paid as well as a custody deputy but “youthful indiscretions” prevent them from ever being considered for the position.
Here, we have a deputy who had all the power and perks available in the market. Ferrante alludes to the deputy having accepted far more bribes than prosecutors were able to prove. But his point about deterrence has great merit and was wrongly ignored by the Court.
Onondaga County has a terrible reputation for police/citizen relations. Problems are everywhere; though nowhere worse than within the Syracuse Police Department. Between the legal standard of qualified immunity and the absolute immunity policy put in place by Terri Bright as Syracuse Corporation Counsel, there is no incentive for police to behave within the law. Now Judge Fahey has told police officers that there is no risk of prison for violating the very trust we placed in them. We all know that after less than a year, the former deputy will be off probation and probably get a Relief from Disabilities.
Meanwhile back on the streets and amongst the unwashed, I have to explain why a cop who took bribes, sold and smuggled drugs and alcohol, gets to walk out the court house door. Judge Fahey should help me find an answer to the question that enables me to convince the listener that there is not favoritism in the justice system. I doubt I can easily explain this one away.
Repeatedly I have told people I would never want to be a judge. I lack the temperament for the position and would not enforce a law that I found unconscionable. Hence, I remain on this side of the Bench. I will say that while on many situations I may struggle with a sentence, if I were judge on the deputy’s case, there would be no conflict. He would do time.
After all, if we take no steps to keep drugs out of our prisons, how are we ever going to keep them out of a free society?