CitPat article 6/8/08
Plea deal falls short in child-abuse case
Posted by Jackson Citizen Patriot June 08, 2008 08:10AM
The following is a Jackson Citizen Patriot editorial for June 8:
Police say Kirk Coleman raped his 3-month-old daughter and left her with 17 broken bones last fall. Protesters stood outside the Jackson County courthouse. Many strangers contributed money to help with her care.
Now, a plea agreement intends to put Coleman in prison for no more than five years on a charge of attempted child abuse. We ask if the legal system is treating such a horrendous case as seriously as it should.
Kirk Coleman pleads guilty to attempted child abuse after his 3-month-old daughter suffers horrible injuries last fall.
The evidence shows this child was badly hurt, so why did law enforcement authorities settle for a plea agreement?
The plea deal is puzzling. Worse, it risks sending the wrong message to a community that already fails to protect too many of its youngest members.
Prosecutors and police initially pressed felony charges of abuse in this case. They say they have no doubt Coleman is responsible for the injuries his daughter suffered. If so, why did they not take this case to a trial on charges that reflect how much this child suffered?
This is not a cry from the lynch mob. The court system routinely clears its heavy docket of cases with deals between prosecutors and defense attorneys. Sit on a courtroom bench, and you’ll see that justice would stand still if every accused criminal faced a trial by jury. Trials are the exception.
Plea agreements are the justice system’s lubricant and — unless you want to pay more in taxes for judges and prosecutors, not to mention jail space — that’s the way it should be.
Still, prosecutors have the freedom to choose their battles. There are many cases where Prosecutor Hank Zavislak and his predecessors did not settle for a deals, instead going to trial to ensure tough punishment.
Former prosecutor John McBain (coincidentally, now the judge in the Coleman case) once charged a drunken driver with second-degree murder for a fatal crash, even though it stretched the norm for such cases. McBain took the case to trial. He won.
We do not have all the behind-the-scenes information, but the Coleman case looks to be one that called for vigorous prosecution.
Why did that not happen? Was something missing from the investigation? Were prosecutors looking only to keep Coleman away from his daughter with a guilty plea? Did they lack confidence that they could prevail over an aggressive defense?
Coleman’s attorney, Dennis Hurst, denied that his client abused the girl, even though Coleman told police he was responsible for her injuries. Hurst suggested that others could be responsible.
If police or prosecutors believed that, they should have investigated and charged others. If they believed Coleman was solely to blame, they should have gotten ready for trial.
Instead, Coleman at first was set to plead no contest, which lets him neither admit nor deny guilt, until Judge McBain demanded he actually take responsibility. Then, he and prosecutors settled for a guilty plea in which the guidelines call for no more than five years in prison.
It’s true that experts did not agree whether the child was assaulted sexually, but there’s no debate as to the extent of her injuries. And it strains common sense to accept his 11th-hour claim that he dropped or bumped his daughter because he was not sober.
What happens in the justice system carries over into the community. In 2006, more than 800 children and teens were confirmed victims of abuse. Some of them died as a result of it.
The outcome of such a closely watched case makes an impact, and that’s why prosecutors need to show the community that abuse will not be tolerated.
This little girl will pay for the rest of her life. The person who caused her so much suffering will not.
Jackson County prosecutor’s office
Hank Zavislak serves as county prosecutor. His office is located at 312 S. Jackson St., Jackson, MI 49201. The office’s phone number is 788-4283.