Jeff Pelline: Legal Kumbaya, but for whom?
It’s good to know that if somebody I know one day walks up to a kid at a park and whacks him on the head with his skateboard, from behind, unprovoked, while the kid is trying to break up a fight where young men are about to pee on another boy, that he’ll – well – get a second chance.
On Thursday (first on the Web), we reported that a 21-year-old youth, who did this to a Condon Park patron in 2007, according to police and eyewitnesses, was sentenced to five years probation. The victim, Josh Harkins, suffered damage to his brain, skull and ear and was in a coma for more than a week after the attack.
The assailant, Patrick Cronan, had faced as many as four years in prison for the incident, which occurred while he already was on probation for burglary. As for the skateboard whack, he pleaded guilty to an assault charge in July 2007.
The District Attorney’s office said it was seeking a possible prison sentence before the victim approached the court and asked that the youth not be sentenced to prison. The victim confirmed he had reached a civil settlement for full restitution for his injuries and medical costs. In July 2007, Harkins’ mother said her son’s medical bills added up to more than $250,000.
“This development placed the prosecution and court in a difficult position of honoring the victim’s wishes, while protecting the public and holding the defendant accountable for this crime,” said a press release issued by the county District Attorney’s office, complete with supporting statements from the the defense attorney.
“We hope a suspended prison sentence with strict probation terms will strike an appropriate balance of competing interests,” said the legal kumbaya message.
Like many of you, I hope so too.
I’m glad the two families worked it out from their ends. (Some interesting insurance settlements come from here: Besides the skateboard incident, the Wilcox-Barnes saga comes to mind.)
But I still worry about public safety in the Cronan case, and I’m not alone. Here’s what Judge Julie McManus, who granted the probation request, said in June 2007, when she denied a request to reduce Cronan’s bail, set at $75,000: “My primary consideration is that (Cronan) will lose his temper and kill someone. Public safety is my primary consideration.”
Here’s what Assistant District Attorney Anna Ferguson said at the same time: “Bail should be raised, if anything.” She added: “Holes have been drilled in this kid’s head. He’s in an induced coma. We’re hoping he won’t die and this won’t turn into a murder offense.”
As another judge, Robert Tamietti said in September 2007: “This was an unprovoked-from-the-back surprise attack. If you’re scared, fight your way out instead of going to the middle of everything.”
Now we learn that Cronan will be subject to anger-management classes and must stay away from Condon Park and the victim. The plea agreement also includes a three-year suspended prison sentence, 18 months of local jail time and a no-alcohol clause.
According to Munkelt, psychological counseling and anger classes “could be of more benefit to the defendant, as well as the community, as a prison term provides no opportunity for rehabilitation.”
We’ve heard this response before, certainly from the defense attorneys, but also from numerous local judges and our DA (a former probation officer).
Others in our community disagree. Some people think prison is appropriate and a deterrent for a crime of this nature. It also sends a message to the community that such a crime is not tolerated.
“I can’t believe it’s possible (Cronan) would get probation for this,” Josh’s father, Dan Harkins, said in September 2007. “At least give him some time in prison.”
As one reader put it: “Who’s willing to bet that Cronan fails to meet the terms of probation and gets into more trouble? When that happens there will be more excuses as to why and another ‘plea’ to give him another chance to be good.”
The case did grab the attention of local residents, many of whom were upset at the violent nature of the crime. It also took numerous legal twists: The plea agreement came 15 months after the crime occurred.
I can see both sides: This is a complex case, with as many angles as a Rubik’s cube. The assistant DA was correct in identifying the difficulty of honoring the victim’s wishes, providing public safety and holding the defendant accountable. Nobody has all the answers.
Here’s an idea: Instead of another plea agreement, why not convene a jury of Cronan’s peers and hold a trial? The jury, comprised of local residents, can hear both sides of the case in a courtroom. The public can witness the proceedings, too, providing transparency to the judicial process.
Then the jury can deliberate and decide whether the defendant is guilty or not guilty, as well as an appropriate sentence, all under the watchful guidance of a judge.
Just a thought.
Jeff Pelline is the editor of The Union. His column appears on Saturdays. Contact him at 477-4235, firstname.lastname@example.org, or 464 Sutton Way, Grass Valley 95945.
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