Court mentality more dangerous than murderer

By The Madison County Record | May 29, 2005

There are those in Madison County courts and government that don’t seem to think the county deserves its well-earned title of “#1 Judicial Hellhole in the United States,” a title they have held nationally for two years.

There are those in Madison County courts and government that don’t seem to think the county deserves its well-earned title of “#1 Judicial Hellhole in the United States,” a title they have held nationally for two years.

Most attribute the title to high jury awards for malpractice and use that to invalidate the title. The doctor evacuation and high malpractice, filings with tenuous ties to the county and civil awards are simply the tip of the iceberg about to rip open the hull of the Madison County courts.

This past week brought to mind three personal friends, murdered in the 1970s. The cases are only related in that I personally knew the victims and all of them were violently, viciously ripped from my life.

Karla Brown was found partially clad, strangled with her head in a washtub in the basement of her Wood River home. Karla’s murder went unsolved for many years. Her justice and peace came after the development of new testing and the exhumation of her body for comparison of the bite mark on her neck.

Denise Bertels Stahlhut was abducted from her place of work in Edwardsville in 1977 and was later found murdered in the trunk of her car. Her family got no peace or justice until 2003 when her murderer, Herman Lamb, was nailed by DNA evidence, tried and convicted.

Nonetheless, 30 years ago, I marveled at the swift justice afforded my friend Donna Bartels. Donna, her sister, Diana, and I were in Jobs Daughters together in the late ‘60s to early ‘70s. I have many fond memories of those days. I was four months pregnant with my first daughter when Donna was so heinously, viciously slain.

Her mother-in-law, someone I referred to as aunt, confided in me about going to make the identification of Donna’s body. She described the terror on Donna’s face and the horror in her eyes as “being frozen there.” Even with chills up my spine, I could relate to the Mississippi River in February capable to freeze-frame the revulsion she described.

Now I remember, about a year ago, the major flap in Madison County over a non-retained, special public defender John Abell asking the county to pay almost $12,000 in billable hours and travel expense in his attempt to get a new trial to free a killer who had served 29 years.

I didn’t realize at the time it was Donna’s murderer wishing to withdraw his guilty plea.

Less than a year after Judge Hackett denies withdrawal of the guilty plea and Chief Judge Edward Ferguson told a reporter for the Telegraph that he couldn’t remember the reason why one of the six attorneys the county already retains at $18,000 a year was not used, Whitford walks free via the Prisoner Review Board shell game of hearings.

Larry Whitford, the killer, may have been 17 at the time of the killing; however, he had only served a year for each time he stabbed my friend.

Her sister Diana has ready recall of his adult-like statements that “it felt good to feel the blood on his hands and it was fun to watch them fight back."

He was adult enough to agree to trade the possibility of the death penalty on two murders, Donna and her friend Pamela Brooks, by pleading guilty to the one murder of Donna in exchange for 30 to 100 years.

Fast forward a year, now it strikes me as anomalous those glitches in “communication” (as in the Review Board purportion of having no record of contact by the victims or the State’s Attorney’s Office) so no one was present to object to releasing him to Granite City, just a stone’s throw from the walking wounded of his crime.

The peculiarity continues with statements attributed to the judge – now Granite City Attorney – in the case, John Gitchoff and the late U.S. District Court Judge Paul E. Riley who served as the attorney who defended Whitford in 1975.

When I was growing up the name Gitchoff was as synonymous with Madison County as Touchette was to St. Clair County, particularly in Granite City political circles. Both men, as soon as seven years after the crime made overtures to the Prisoner Review Board to release Whitford.

The late Judge Riley wrote to the parole board from his bench in 1992 regarding Whitford, “I simply believe that it is time for the members of the Parole and Pardon Board to use their discretion in a positive fashion.”

Why write that? His client pled guilty; there is a judicial system so that attorney’s beliefs do not enter into carrying out the letter and spirit of the law. To me, the most positive thing that Parole Board did was to keep the man behind bars.

Even more unsettling is the sentencing (former) judge’s statement, “In my own mind, I felt that he would serve approximately 16-20 years and would give him an opportunity to still have some life to look forward to.”

Perhaps that explains attorney Gitchoff’s absence from the bench; perhaps the Bartels and Brooks families, the citizenry and I are supposed to take comfort in that fact.

Furthermore, while these individuals weighed in their “opinions” of this killer’s character and time for remorse, last July a former sheriff’s deputy states, in an affidavit to the review board, “I was told by Judge John Gitchoff, my personal friend and sentencing judge in the case, that Judge Gitchoff knew that Whitford was innocent…but(Gitchoff) couldn’t do anything about it as Mr. Whitford pled guilty and it was Judge Gitchoff’s duty to sentence him.”

Yes, sentencing was his duty, not playing the role of medium.

Indeed, the Karmeier-Maag race was a hideous spectacle of a campaign. Nevertheless, it was as clear a message as we, the people, could send to the judges and the trial lawyers that the good old boy system is no longer good enough.

Since my police days in the late 1970s to now, I have watched the laws made easier and easier for the police to do their jobs only to have the leniency of judges and the machinations of defense attorneys discount all the hard work. We want change, reforms, and a sense of responsibility to return to the courts.

Lady Justice is blindfolded that her analysis and interpretations of the law will define the facts and weigh them carefully without being manipulated or played upon by cons and dramatists. Though a judge has to have a law degree, he or she should remove their lawyer hat and serve justice – neither his personal feelings nor his ex parte chats with sheriff’s deputies or lawyer buddies.

Particularly in Madison County, the process of judicial selection and appointment must shift to one of merit over cronyism. We have to wrest back dignity with honesty and integrity overshadowing nepotism, cronyism, corruption and the ever popular you-scratch-my-back-I’ll-scratch-yours.

People can’t get healthcare, liability rates are climbing, erroneous, fluff suits are being filed and allowed by judges. We need to unite and say "Stop" before the current monkeyshines make the 1960’s days of Daly-run Chicago start looking good to us.

An excellent launch would be to start taking responsibility for our choices and the outcomes. Keep the Killers in jail! In addition, let the doctors practice medicine without handcuffs while looking over their shoulder!

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