Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Columns

January 26, 2014

Sadler’s rejection of guilty plea sends strong message to Mercer prosecutors

— — It was a judicial decision heard ’round the county. After a plethora of plea deals in recent years, one circuit judge finally said “no” — ordering a former teacher charged with multiple sexual-abuse related charges to stand trial for his alleged crimes.

The decision rendered by Mercer County Judge William Sadler was surprising to many, but also welcomed. In recent years, Mercer has become the hotbed for pleas. In our own newsroom we’ve discussed how former trial reporter Greg Jordan is now on the plea and sentencing beat — the high-profile courtroom drama Greg used to record having been replaced by a dictation of the results of deals struck prior to trial in talks between prosecutors and defense attorneys.

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Plea deals have a place in the judicial system. They save time, taxpayers’ money and, in some instances, may make it easier on the victims. But they should not become the norm — the standard operating procedure for career criminals accused of dastardly deeds. Regrettably, that’s seems to have become the case in Mercer County in recent years.

Our current prosecuting attorney’s office is staffed by a team of former defense attorneys. That’s not necessarily a bad thing unless they continue to think and act like defense attorneys instead of prosecutors. They are representing victims, not a system. And no matter how tidy and clean a plea agreement may be, if a perpetrator does not do sufficient time for his or her crime then a disservice has been done.

As of late, my telephone has felt like the complaint hotline for Mercer County plea deals. Victims, law enforcement officials and average Joes call me to complain that criminals are getting a break instead of a trial. Readers also post similar comments on the Daily Telegraph’s Facebook page.

I empathize, and attempt to explain how the system works. But it can be frustrating. When criminals and their defense attorneys believe that plea deals are the preferred outcome they will use it to their advantage. Some tell me that “just hold out” is the theme — if one doesn’t like the original deal, simply stay firm and eventually prosecutors will agree to the desired terms.

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The recent plea deal rejected by Circuit Court Judge Sadler involved Jonathan Kirk, 35, a former PikeView physical education teacher and coach, charged with multiple sexual-abuse related charges involving students.

Sadler said the plea agreement didn’t take into account Kirk’s position as a teacher, and how that position allowed him to pressure the victims to do what he wanted them to do. “The court cannot find the plea agreement in the interest of justice,” Sadler said during the hearing.

Chief Assistant Prosecuting Attorney George Sitler noted the judge had reservations about the results of a sexual offender evaluation and presentencing reports that were filed before the hearing. “I think Judge Sadler’s greatest reservation had to do with Mr. Kirk’s minimization of his acts in the presentence psychological evaluation,” Sitler said on the day of the hearing.

Under the proposed plea agreement, Kirk would have faced 20 years in prison with the possibility of being released within 10 years. He now faces 19 charges and, if convicted, could spend around a century behind bars.

Kirk has admitted to sharing sexually explicit imagery with seven victims and touching one victim intimately, but more sexual contact was alleged in the indictment. Two victims allege actual sexual conduct.

After the hearing, Sitler said the judge’s ruling “means we’re going to have to try the case. It means these girls will have to come before the jury and tell an awkward, uncomfortable story. I feel confident the evidence will sustain a conviction for more time than Mr. Kirk pleaded to ultimately, but that will have to be seen on April 15.”

While Sitler’s comments underscore sympathy toward the victims, publicized comments indicate some want their day in court.

One victim’s mother told reporter Greg Jordan that she is glad the case is now going to trial. “I think the judge not accepting the plea was a really big relief,” she said after the hearing. “I think that the plea did not address all the victims. I wasn’t expecting it, but it was really a relief.”

Kirk was arrested in March 2013 and charged with 19 felony charges including multiple counts of use of obscene matter with intent to seduce a minor; use of minors in filming sexually explicit conduct; distribution and display to minors of obscene matter; sexual abuse by a parent or custodian; and soliciting a minor via computer.

Sgt. M.D. Clemons, with the Crimes Against Children Unit of the West Virginia State Police, said the majority of the charges stemmed from events that occurred on the school grounds and the alleged victims were female students between the ages of 16 and 18 years old.

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Judge Sadler’s decision to reject Kirk’s plea deal is a bold move — but one celebrated and embraced by many. His actions emphasize that accepting the easy route to moderate jail time is not always in the best interest of justice.

And it certainly is not in the best interest of vulnerable teen-age girls who have been victimized by a sexual predator.

Samantha Perry is editor of the Daily Telegraph. Contact her at sperry@bdtonline.com. Follow her @BDTPerry.

 

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