By Rabbi Binyamin Goldfarb
An Open Letter to the Honorable Judge Douglas Staskal,
I am sure that Tuesday was a difficult day for you. One could see the struggle in your decision to sentence Wendy Weiner Runge on the videoed segment of the proceedings. It is a position that no one envies.
On the one hand, she is a mother of four and had no prior criminal history. On the other hand, the defiant manner in which she would admit no error or culpability was irksome and frustrating.
Another issue that has no doubt bothered you is why do religious Jewish defendants often bring up the anti-Semitism card instead of clearly admitting when they did wrong?
It is a frustration that many in our community share. Another issue that is maddeningly exasperating is the tendency that exists in our community not to examine the evidence on its own merits but to make declarations of complete innocence based upon examining the facts of the case as presented only by the accused.
All this is true and frustrating. And these issues should be addressed, but, if I could be so bold, not at the expense of the disparity between meting out the law, and meting out justice.
Justice is something that exists, and something that should be sought, beyond the exact law. Often when we mete out legal decisions – justice is reached. And yet often, it is not.
Justice must be even-handedness, fair, and equal.
Sadly, the law, in our times and under our system, is often none of the three. A chasm exists that must be bridged.
And it is up to our nation’s judges to bridge that chasm. While it is tempting to send messages, our justices must look for inconsistencies and discrepancies within their own sentences, and when they see that their interpretation and implementation of law is disproportionate, they should and must adjust. Justice and adjustments for leniencies must be made based on the facts of the case and associated circumstances. When we do so solely on a defendants blogs and expressed sentiments to others – a perilous element is introduced.
In your ruling you criticized the defendant for attacking prosecutors and judges in public statements she has made, while blaming her plight on anti-Semitism and “some sort of political conspiracy.”
You were not wrong.
You further described the “complete arrogant and defiant” way in which, outside the courtroom, she denied responsibility for her crime. You were not wrong here either.
Humbly, I would like to suggest that an error was made when you stated, “This is a case in my judgment that calls out for the court to send a message to you and others who would engage in this kind of behavior that it’s not accepted, that it’s criminal and it will not be tolerated.”
Why? Because as meaningful and as necessary as the point you are making is, it should not obscure the boundaries between justice and law.
Matthias Saunders, another defendant and a pivotal player in Polynation’s deals with the state of Iowa, will stay out of prison if he complies with the terms of his release.
Because he pled guilty earlier – even though he profited from services his company provided.
Chase Brandau, 26, another defendant received a deferred sentencing for second-degree theft. He will be able to wipe the felony from his record if he successfully completes to two years of probation. Why? Perhaps it was because he too pled guilty and showed more meaningful signs of remorse than did Wendy Weiner Runge.
Should your message be heard? Yes, absolutely.
But your message would carry more weight if you would have quoted how terrible it is, in both the eyes of our nation’s laws and in the defendant’s own religious tradition, to attempt to take money from others, and to make false statements even if they are only in writing and even if someone else told the defendant to do it.
The disparity in the sentences meted out in this case might even create an opposite effect. When violent crimes, drug dealers, and other types of offenders receive lesser sentences – people are justifiably angry. The message of refraining from taking money from others and of absolute integrity in all our business dealings will not be heard, and an opportunity will be lost.
I urge you, Honorable Judge, to reconsider the sentence and use the opportunity to quote to the world how very wrong this defendant’s actions were in the traditions of this nation and in her own religious traditions. Your message needs to be heard and the eyes of the world are now upon you.
Rabbi Binyamin Goldfarb