As a retired judge, my comments are in response to the full-page ad against Justice David Overstreet run by an entity calling itself “Clean Courts Committee.” The ad ran on Oct. 14, 2020 and continues to appear on your website.
The ad is detached from and a distortion of the facts of the case People of the State of Illinois v. Jerad W. Peoples, 2020 IL. App (5th) 190114-U. It can easily be found online.
Justice Overstreet was one of a three-judge appellate court panel that unanimously concluded that a trial court judge had erred when it permitted a criminal trial to go forward against a defendant who was unable to attend the trial because he was hospitalized and in an intensive care unit. It is a basic tenant in our system of justice that a defendant has the right to attend his own trial. The defendant was tried in a bench trial in his absence, found guilty and sentenced to 35 years in prison.
The three-judge panel in its ruling found: “When the defendant was scheduled 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.” The defendant was found to have a history of bipolar I disorder, depression, anxiety, addiction and suicidal ideation. While intoxicated, the defendant took an overdose of acetaminophen-based sleeping aid. Most importantly, the three-judge panel found that the trial court had information that the defendant may be hospitalized. The three-judge panel found that the decision by the trial court to proceed in the defendant’s absence was an abuse of discretion.
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.
The charge against the defendant was not dismissed. The case was sent back to the trial court for a new trial.
The decision was written by Justice Milton S. Wharton with Justice David Overstreet and Justice John B. Barberis Jr. concurring in the unanimous decision.
The negative ad is an attack on judicial independence. To quote the current Illinois Judges Association President in a recent op-ed: “With the upcoming judicial elections in Illinois that include State Supreme Court, appellate courts ... the public should evaluate judges based on their integrity, professionalism, temperament, experience and commitment to public service, fairness and impartiality — not how they rule in highly publicized cases.” Judicial independence is vital to our system of justice. We want decisions based on facts and the law. Outside pressures and political influence have no place in an independent judiciary.
David K. Frankland, of Albion, was the Edwards County resident circuit judge for 18 years until his retirement in 2016. He practiced law for 25 years before he became a judge.
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