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Justice requires a delicate balance

A Solon Springs bookkeeper skims $35,000 off cash payments to her employer, playing a shell game with other people's accounts to hide the theft. A Superior man walks up to a car wash talking smack. He reaches into a car to steal an iPod, punching...

A Solon Springs bookkeeper skims $35,000 off cash payments to her employer, playing a shell game with other people's accounts to hide the theft.

A Superior man walks up to a car wash talking smack. He reaches into a car to steal an iPod, punching the car's owner on the way.

One of these cases resulted in a lengthy prison sentence, the other with 20 days of jail and no probation.

On the surface, Teresa Lynn Sather's embezzlement from Polar Gas Co. led to widespread consequences for multiple customers who trusted her. Jason Lee Varela's car wash theft left one man with a sore jaw and no tunes. Yet he ended up with a five-year sentence while she spent less than a month in Douglas County Jail.

People reading the public record may not understand the results, but Douglas County District Attorney Dan Blank does. As gatekeeper to the court system, it's his job to determine which cases make it to court and what kind of penalties to request. To do that, he has to dig below the surface.

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"Our job is not just to fill jail cells or to make referrals to treatment for anybody who's ever had too much to drink," Blank said. "We have got to make good decisions.

"Sure, we got every right to just go after the people for what they've done, but I think the responsible thing is to get the root of the problem and find out who is this person; where have they come from. Now knowing that what should the system do?"

Another chance

Sometimes, the answer is to hand a defendant the opportunity to step up to the plate and be responsible. That could include undergoing treatment or making amends.

"It's pretty politically unpopular for us to give people second chances," Blank said. "Our office does what we think is the right thing to do, which may give people a break, a chance to redeem themselves."

Take Sather, for example. When she pleaded guilty to two counts of theft in October, sentencing wasn't scheduled for another two months. In that time, the Solon Springs woman paid back the money, wrote an apology letter and underwent a psychological evaluation. So Blank recommend the light sentence.

"I like to think we sent an OK message there, and we certainly accomplished something for our victims," Blank said.

There is no litmus test, no guarantee that giving a first-time offender a break will make a difference. But, Blank said, "I've got to believe a large percentage take their consequences and kind of grow up and move on and learn from the experience."

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Tough stance

With an overload of cases -- the district attorney's office alone has stacks of file folders for property crimes, domestic cases, sex assaults and traffic offenses -- it would tax the system to take a "throw the book at them" mentality.

"It's our responsibility to be smart on crime, not tough on crime or soft on crime," Blank said. That means deciding which people are worth paying nearly $40,000 a year to put in the prison system.

Varela fit that bill. At 21, he already has 11 adult convictions ranging from possession of meth, cocaine and marijuana to battery and disorderly conduct. As Blanks put it, Varela was serving a life sentence on the installment plan. The Superior man was serving probation for a Minnesota robbery conviction when he decked the man at the car wash.

"A man like him has every reason in the world for laying low, trying to change his ways so he doesn't go to a 2- or 3-year sentence in Minnesota, yet he does a similar, arguably violent offense," Blank said. "I felt the prison sentence was appropriate."

He also cautioned that one fact rarely reported is what each side of the case recommends. Most are joint recommendations, but that isn't always the case.

"If the judge rubber-stamps our recommendation and people don't like it, they've got every right to criticize us," Blank said. Sometimes, however, the parties differ in how strong a sentence should be and the judge makes the final decision.

Choices

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Not everyone agrees with Blank's "smart on crime" approach. Some argue sentences are too light. Others complain about cases that never get prosecuted.

With the mounds of files on his desk every day, cases have to be weeded out.

"People get charged based on the words of other people, without much to back it up," Blank said. "Sometimes we get burned on that when you do a little follow up investigation. You want to believe your complainants are legit and there that there will be follow-up to corroborate. A lot of times that doesn't happen."

It only takes a showing of probable cause to move a charge into the court system. But an ongoing case against a Lake Nebagamon woman accused of pocketing cash from her employer, Manion Foods, nearly folded at the preliminary hearing stage because the state's evidence was, in the words of Court Commissioner Paul Baxter, "tenuous."

A battery/theft case was dismissed altogether last month because just before the preliminary hearing, the victim realized the woman about to face him in the courtroom wasn't the person who robbed him. But now she is listed on the state's court Web site in conjunction with a felony charge.

"And you know people look this stuff up on the computer," Blank said. "They don't look at the fine print."

Another reason to weed out cases is money. Charging out a case triggers the Public Defender's office, the Clerk of Courts office, court time and office time. That all comes out of taxpayer dollars.

"There's no way to keep on top of everything so it's prioritizing," Blank said. "Picking and choosing battles."

If something can be resolved on a community level, it should be.

"Not every dispute or every bad thing that happens in our world should come into the court system," Blank said. "I think it's important for us to be careful and to make good decisions and err on the side of not charging if we really don't think there's much to it or we there's not a whole lot to back it up."

Rolling the dice

Although the standards for probable cause are low, the bar raises to proof beyond a reasonable doubt as a case progresses.

"I tell victims and witnesses that going to a jury trial may be a form of gambling," Blank said. "You don't know what a juror -- and that's all it takes for a hung jury -- or some jurors will think about the evidence."

Instead of a trial's all-or-nothing approach, attorneys strive to reach plea deals.

"There are a lot of reasons for us to negotiate cases -- not because we're afraid to go forward," Blank said. "It's not because we're soft on crime and we don't care. It's because we've got to get justice and decent or good consequences so that the actual victims and witnesses, and hopefully the community will see something was accomplished here."

After 17 years on the job, Blank still feels a sense of rolling up his sleeves and working with humanity.

"It's humbling to have the power and control by the position to be able to make such important decisions in people's lives -- empowering people to make positive changes in their lives, whether it's the tough guy prosecution or the second chance," he said.

In the human chess game that is the court system, it takes both strategies.

"If all that (people) see is the public record, this is just such a microscopic snapshot of what the actual case is about," Blank said. "You could never put enough disclaimers on it."

Call Maria Lockwood at call (715) 395-5025 or e-mail mlockwood@superiortelegram.com .

Maria Lockwood covers news in Douglas County, Wisconsin, for the Superior Telegram.
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