"Defiant." That's how Judge Steven Ohmer remembers James T. Green.
In February, 67-year-old Green found himself in Ohmer's courtroom after being charged with four counts of being a felon in possession of a firearm. A trial ended in four guilty verdicts from the jury, and the circuit attorney recommended a seven-year sentence.
But Ohmer decided to throw the book at Green: 60 years in prison, the maximum possible sentence.
"He had a terrible attitude," said Ohmer, who described the case in a startling interview with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch's Tony Messenger
. "His attitude was very defiant. There was no reason to have any sympathy for him.”
But something changed Ohmer's mind. On June 1, the judge reversed his own harsh ruling and ordered Green set free. Green was released from the state penitentiary in Bonne Terre where he'd been confined for four months. In total, Green had spent twelve months behind various bars since his arrest in June 2014.
That arrest itself was hardly straightforward, as the Post-Dispatch
's Messenger detailed in his column. It stemmed from complaints of "suspicious activity" in a home Green shared with a nephew. Green told Messenger that officers showed up one day, looked around the house and asked him to sign some forms. Green signed, but he says he didn't know what the forms said. It turns out he had claimed ownership of four guns in the home, making Green (who had been convicted of a drug felony in 2005) a felon in possession of a firearm.
Green was also charged with operating a business without a license, possession of drug paraphernalia, possession of a controlled substance with intent to distribute, and tampering with utilities. All but the gun charges were dropped.
Green could have taken a plea deal, but instead he took the case to trial. The result was disastrous. After the February sentencing, it looked like Green would live out the rest of his days in prison.
But Green's public defender, Julie Fogelberg, didn't give up. Her client was a non-violent black man with diabetes who had never finished elementary school. And according to an affidavit
signed by Green's nephew, the guns didn't even belong to him. At trial, Ohmer prevented the jury from seeing the affidavit.
In a motion
seeking reconsideration of judgement, Fogelberg wrote that it was Ohmer himself who had erred. Among other things, she accused the judge of punishing her client for having the gall take his case to trial. Ohmer had gone too far, she argued, and had transformed a process that was supposed to be about justice into a spectacle of punishment.
"The court made it clear after the jury found Mr. Green guilty of all four (4) charges that going to trial was a mistake, and Mr. Green’s sentence would reflect the court’s opinion about the mistake of proceeding to trial," Fogelberg wrote.
In the interview with Messenger, Ohmer denied that the 60-year sentence was payback for Green going to trial. Still, he acknowledged
that Fogelberg raised legitimate legal issues, "so I tried to do the fair thing."
Maybe that's the lesson here: Sometimes, the justice system can use a bit more defiance.
Follow Danny Wicentowski on Twitter at @D_ Towski. E-mail the author at Danny.Wicentowski@RiverfrontTimes.com