A court decision involving an appeal from a convicted sex offender who attempted suicide before trial has surfaced in the race for the state Supreme Court’s Southern Illinois district between two sitting justices on that same court.
In a 28-page opinion issued in June, a three-judge panel of the 5th District Appellate Court tossed out the conviction of Jerad Peoples, who claimed he deserved a new trial because he was hospitalized from a drug overdose and suicide attempt during his first trial.
Justice David Overstreet, who is the Republican candidate, agreed with the two other appellate judges on the panel that decided to throw out Peoples’ conviction for sexually abusing a child and grant him a new trial.
Both Overstreet and his opponent, Justice Judy Cates, currently serve on the 5th District Appellate Court, one of five appeals courts across the state that is directly below the Illinois Supreme Court.
They are running to fill the seat held by Justice Lloyd Karmeier, who is retiring in December.
Cates in a news release this week demanded an explanation for Overstreet’s decision “for why he released a child molester from jail as an unregistered sex offender.”
The Clean Courts Committee, a campaign committee “to elect judges free of corruption” in Illinois, also recently sponsored ads attacking Overstreet about his decision in the case, People v. Jerad Peoples.
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Overstreet said in an interview he couldn’t comment on the details of the decision because of an Illinois Supreme Court rule that prohibits judges from speaking publicly “about a pending or impending proceeding in any court.”
“Obviously the decision speaks for itself, and I would encourage your readers to read the order themselves,” he said. “It's just unfortunate that Justice Cates’ campaign is desperate.”
In January 2015, Peoples was charged with sexually abusing the 6-year-old daughter of his girlfriend for four years, starting in 2011.
He was found guilty at trial and sentenced to 35 years in prison.
Peoples asked the appellate court to decide whether his felony conviction for criminal sexual assault of a child should be vacated, or thrown out, because he was hospitalized when his trial began, and therefore was involuntarily absent from the trial.
An individual can choose to be absent from his or her trial under Illinois law.
State law also allows for a person to be absent from his or her trial if the prosecutor proves “through substantial evidence that the defendant is willfully avoiding trial.”
When Peoples was absent for trial and could not be reached, the trial judge was told that a detective had seen Peoples in the emergency room of a local hospital at 3:30 a.m. that day, according to the opinion.
Peoples’ attorney wasn’t able to confirm this information with the hospital, due to state and federal privacy laws.
It was revealed that Peoples had overdosed on an acetaminophen-based sleeping aid, “(w)hile in an intoxicated state,” the opinion states.
“Given the information the trial court received the morning of trial, the court should have engaged in additional inquiry to ascertain whether (Peoples) was in the hospital under guard and was unable to leave the hospital to attend his trial,” the appellate court’s June 22 opinion states.
“When (Peoples) was scheduled to be present for trial, he was confined to the intensive care unit with security guards posted at his door, was receiving treatment for acetaminophen poisoning, and was not in control of his actions,” according to the opinion.
The appellate court panel — including Overstreet, John Barberis Jr. and Milton S. Wharton — decided to vacate Peoples’ conviction for sexually assaulting a child, and found he was entitled to a new trial.
In an editorial defending the decision, retired Edwards County judge David K. Frankland wrote that the appellate court’s decision does not mean the charge against Peoples was also thrown out.
“The charge against the defendant was not dismissed. The case was sent back to the trial court for a new trial,” Frankland wrote. “A defendant in our system of justice has a constitutional right to be present at all stages of the trial including the right to confront witnesses and to assist his attorney in cross-examination of the witnesses. The constitutional right to be present at trial is fundamental to our system and can be waived only under extreme circumstances."
Peoples was released on bond in July after serving about three years of his 35-year sentence at Big Muddy River prison.
Derek Siegel, Peoples’ defense attorney, confirmed his client had been released from prison but declined to comment further on the case.
Peoples is set to appear in court in Marion County next month.
Capitol News Illinois is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news service covering state government and distributed to more than 400 newspapers statewide. It is funded primarily by the Illinois Press Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation.
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