Hard Criminals: Soft Sentences, Part II

By: Ryan Famuliner Email
By: Ryan Famuliner Email

It's a scene that's almost familiar on the evening news: a victim's family standing outside the courthouse, protesting a judge's decision on a crime that changed their lives.

In our conversation with County Judge Roland Chamblee, Jr., we spent a lot of time talking about the public's perception of how the court system works.

In a state where cameras aren't allowed in a courtroom, the judges operate in relative anonymity.

And unless you've been in court yourself, it's likely you don't know much about how the courts actually work on a daily basis, aside from what you see on the news.

And the stories you remember are usually the ones that reflect poorly on the judges.

“I'm mad, I don't understand why this judge wannabe wants to take this punk and put him back on the street after 32 years,” said Dennis Severns, the father of Scott Severns, in an interview last year.

In September, the family of Scott Severns was livid, when Judge Chamblee sentenced Jeff Finley to 65 years for robbing and murdering Severns, which could only be half that with good behavior.

“It shows some frustration with the system at times and I’ll say anything less than life without parole is less than what was appropriate,” said then-Police Chief Thomas Fautz in September.

Chamblee says it was a tough time, and a tough decision, but he thinks he made the right one.

“I can't say Scott was a nice guy and so you should be life in prison without parole. The law set certain rules; I tried to follow them… It was difficult case to deal with. I did an 11 or 12 page judgment trying to explain to the community as much as anything else; judges don't just decide things in a void,” Chamblee said.

Police still say they don't see any justification for the sentence.

“I don’t care police officer or not this was a violent crime, committed, murder, against another human being who was innocent at the time who was doing nothing more than talking to another person on a beautiful night, and was murdered in cold blood. That in and of itself should have been a mandatory period sentence, there's no question about it,” said South Bend Police officer and F.O.P. #36 spokesman Scott Ruszkowski.

But Chamblee says, as a judge, you have to try to keep emotion out of your decision.

“By and large people that are hurt, want that hurt to be respected by the harshest sentence you can have, so you can't let that be the guiding consideration,” Chamblee said.

Police and family members also took it personally when Ronald Wedge received the minimum sentence in his federal case last year, in Judge Robert Miller’s court.

Wedge falsified documents and sold a gun to Scott Barnaby; who used that gun to kill police officer Nick Polizzotto.

“The bad thing is he will be out in the 10 months going back to his family, and my nephew has no father anymore because of his actions,” said Tony Polizzotto, Nick’s brother, after the Wedge’s verdict came out last year.

Chamblee says sentencing isn't a science, but it's still a methodical process.

“We, as individuals, are a sum total of our experiences, and they're all different experiences, and all we can do as far as the judiciary is concerned is one, stay in the parameters set by the law, and two explain why we do what we do,” Chamblee said.

The written decisions are their avenue for that explanation, that he says, again, is guided by the law.

“By and large I think people think we can do whatever we want to do, and usually if they have a stake in the outcome of the case, they think we can do what they want us to do, and that's not always true,” Chamblee said.

“What you have to do though, without worrying about whether you're going to satisfy somebody else, is you try to do what the law says, and you think you're doing right. That's the only defense you have to arbitrary decisions,” Chamblee said.

The getaway driver in the Scott Severns murder received a sentence of 45 years, even though he and Finley testified they had no intention of committing murder that night. The maximum he could have received was 50 years.

Then-police Chief Thomas Fautz said they were satisfied with that judgment and explanation out of Judge Marnocha's court.

To watch the extended interview with Judge Chamblee, click on the link above. A link to the judge's 12-page judgment in the Jeff Finley case is also above.

Tomorrow night, in the final installment of hard criminals, soft sentences, we will investigate how the system allowed a repeat rapist to serve just a fraction of his time, and allegedly offend again.

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