U.S. District Judge Joe Billy McDade rejected an 18-month sentence for former St. Clair County judge Michael Cook at a hearing today in federal court in East St. Louis and continued proceedings to March 28.
Cook, who pleaded guilty in November to charges of possessing heroin and using it while possessing firearms, can withdraw his guilty plea and face trial or renegotiate a plea agreement with federal prosecutors knowing the Court expects a longer sentence.
McDade ordered Cook to report what he intends to do by March 19.
“Facts” that were “unobjected to” support a higher sentence, McDade said at the outset of the hearing that got started 25 minutes later than scheduled in a courtroom packed with Cook's supporters and media.
“But, one in the Court’s judgment that would be fair to Mr. Cook and also fair to the public in terms of reassuring them that the judiciary is in fine shape and the judiciary is in good hands and is one that continues to warrant their respect.”
McDade is a senior judge from the Central District of Illinois. He took the case after all Southern District judges disqualified themselves.
After McDade advised Cook of his options, Cook’s attorney William Lucco of Edwardsville asked the judge for “some time” to deliberate with Cook and the government.
“I am not ready to proceed,” Lucco said.
In January, McDade asked for a revised presentence report signaling he wanted a stronger sentence than the 18 months Cook negotiated with prosecutors. He cited three reasons for considering an upward variance in sentencing: Cook’s status as a judge, disruption of governmental functions and the loss of public confidence.
McDade received the report on Jan. 22. It remains under seal.
“I do my best to impose a sentence I believe is fair,” McDade said today.
“Just because Mr. Cook was a judge does not mean I should throw the book at him. That is not justice. Justice to me imposes a sentence for this defendant that serves the ends of justice, promotes respect for law and recognizes that based on defendant’s history and character that an 18-month sentence is probably felt to be more than 18 months to someone in his position.”
Cook was arrested by federal agents on May 23 at the Belleville residence of his customary drug dealer Sean McGilvery.
Cook's arrest came two months after the cocaine intoxification death of his friend and colleague, associate judge Joe Christ. Cook found Christ’s body on March 10, in the Pike County hunting lodge of Cook’s father, Belleville lawyer Bruce Cook.
McGilvery pleaded guilty in October to conspiring to distribute heroin. McGilvery stipulated that Cook would “pick up amounts of heroin on an almost daily basis” from his residence. He was sentenced in January to 10 years in prison.
The feds separately arrested St. Clair County probation officer James Fogarty in May, after showing him text messages that implicated him as Christ’s cocaine dealer. He pleaded guilty Nov. 6 to supplying cocaine to Christ and awaits sentencing Feb. 27.
For Wednesday's sentencing hearing, more than 50 persons packed the gallery and more than 20 occupied the official side of the room.
After Lucco said he was not ready to proceed with sentencing, McDade suggested 30 days.
Lucco asked if he would need notice of negotiations before 30 days.
McDade said he would need it in 14 days.
Lucco asked for 21, and McDade agreed.
McDade closed the proceedings and the crowd left, but the lawyers didn’t leave.
For more than an hour they worked in the area behind the judge’s bench.
Lucco emerged at one point, and seven news reporters stirred to action.
He swept past them and said, “We’re not over yet.”
They stirred again when U. S. Attorney Stephen Wigginton emerged, but he swept past and said, “We’re continuing the sentencing.”
That didn’t answer the questions they planned to ask, so they tried to stop assistant U.S. attorney James Porter.
He swept past and said, “You heard what the judge said.”
(Steve Korris contributed to this report).