COLUMNS

DeWayne's World - Sometimes justice is blind drunk

DeWayne Bartels

New Year’s Eve is a day of celebration, a time to leave the woes of the last year behind.

But, there was no leaving 2009 behind for Austin Durham and Thomas Powers. Both surely awoke Dec. 31 day hoping they would end the day with a reason to celebrate, but, these two men’s paths crossed in the Peoria County DUI courtroom of Judge Lisa Wilson.

Party pooper

On New Years Eve, the courthouse was largely deserted except for the hallway outside Courtroom 123.

Before 9 a.m., there were six people waiting and the jail cells adjacent to the courtroom were full.

Durham was in one of these cells. He is 19 and is from Peoria.

As Durham talked to Gary Morris, his public defender, he gave the appearance of one who is inexperienced with the criminal justice system.

But, as they say, looks can be deceiving.

Durham has gained a lot of experience with the criminal justice system in a short period of time.

On Aug. 16, 2008, Durham was received 48 months probation for vehicle theft conspiracy, along with Jesse Bury of 4212 N. Daytona, and Joshua Buckley of 3716 Harmon Ave.

The trio were accused of entering cars at 1734 Maple Ridge; 4014 N. Grand; 1813 E. Maple Ridge; 4119 N. Timber Circle; 1621 Crestwood; 1806 Maple Ridge; 4120 Timber Circle; and 4102 Grand.

Then, on Nov. 23, 2008, Durham was arrested by the Peoria Heights police on a charge of endangering the life and welfare of a child by driving under the influence — with a baby not yet 2 months old in the car.

He failed to appear in court on that charge. He was arrested Jan. 9, 2009, for his failure to appear in court, and  Feb. 10, was sentenced to 30 days in jail.

Durham’s criminal trail went on, including a May 30, 2009, arrest for illegal consumption of alcohol by a minor at 3522 Yorkshire.

Durham sat in the courtroom with cuffs on his hands and shackles on his ankles. He was hoping for a reduction in his bond after being arrested for violating the terms of his release from jail.

Durham had a $10,000 bond, meaning he had to post $1,000 to get out of jail.

Assistant state’s attorney Chris Leasor, who was not in a party mood, was going to do his best to be a party pooper when it came to Durham.

Leasor told Wilson he objected to the bond being reduced.

Morris interrupted, stating his client was not a flight risk.

Leasor did not counter that argument. Instead, he painted Durham as a public menace.

“He’s had two DUIs in less than two years and failed to appear in court in both cases,” Leasor said. “He is a danger to the public.”

Durham looked at Wilson.

He may have been harboring hopes he had a chance at the bond reduction he was seeking. Wilson — a new judge who worked at Prairie State Legal Services before taking the bench — had already greatly reduced the bond of several defendants over Leasor’s protests to the contrary.

But, Wilson’s demeanor was different this time. This time, instead of looking at the defendant, she looked down and scratched her head. She said no. Durham shuffled out of the room back to a cell. He had no reason to celebrate.

Compassionate

Thomas Powers, of East Peoria, stood that afternoon before Wilson to enter a plea of guilty to operating a boat under the influence of  alcohol, a Class A misdemeanor. On Sept. 5, 2009, he was stopped on the Illinois River in Peoria County by Illinois Department of Natural Resources police for a safety inspection.

 The cops smelled alcohol on his breath.

Powers blew a .149 on the breathalyzer.

It was not his first time before a judge.

Powers has three prior DUI convictions — one in 1980 in Tazewell County, one in Marshall County in 1991 and one in Peoria County in 1997.

His priors also include four convictions of driving on a suspended license, taking contraband into a penal institution and criminal trespass to a vehicle.

Even with that record, Powers looked Wilson in the eye and said he does not have a drinking problem.

Leasor shook his head.

“The defendant said he doesn’t have a problem with alcohol even though this is his fourth DUI,” Leasor said.

Leasor asked for a $1,200 fine, 24 months of conditional discharge, alcohol treatment and 120 days in the Peoria County Jail.     

“Had it been a car we’re talking about, and not a boat, he’d be looking at a Class A felony,” Leasor said.

Wilson met both attorneys halfway.

She gave Powers a $750 fine, 100 hours of public service, an order to abstain from drinking alcohol and alcohol abuse treatment.

She delayed passing sentence on jail time.

She said a hearing should be held within 60 days to see if Powers was complying with her order.

“I am concerned you have not totally understood this problem with alcohol. It has to be addressed,” Wilson said.

“Harm could be done. This is your last chance.” 

I walked out of the courtroom.

A large man sat alone on a bench in the hallway.

“I have a friend in there,” he said. “What’s going on? He’s been in there a long time. He must be in big trouble.”

I told him his friend would be out soon, that he was not going to jail.

The man smiled.

“Well, we can celebrate,” he said.

I kept walking.

“Yeah,” I thought. “A little blind justice for the blind drunk.”