A recent plea deal in a child molestation case has set off a storm of controversy in the GOP primary for the 8th Circuit Solicitor race, where incumbent Solicitor Jerry Peace's decision to cut a deal has generated a great deal of criticism, including from a national expert who declared "the handling of this case was highly irregular and troubling", as well as the family of the victim i the case.
This is the latest in a race which has turned into a heated battle between the incumbent and supporters of David Stumbo, a veteran prosecutor who has worked both in the state Attorney General's office as well as an assistant solicitor in the 11th Circuit.
Allegations have been made that Peace's office mishandled the case regarding Norman Keesee, a former music minister accused of molesting a child with cerebral palsy during music lessons. Keesee pled guilty to First Degree Assault and Battery (a non-sexual offense) and was given five years of probation and required to register as a sex offender. While it was indicated that the victim's family agreed to the sentence, a post-trial media interview indicated the family was blindsided in the courtroom on the day of the sentencing and disagreed strongly with the plea deal which was reached by Peace's office.
These allegations surfaced in a story posted on the Greenwood Today website in response to a comment allegedly posted by Elizabeth White, the prosecutor in the case, after a wave of critical comments responding to a story which reported on Keesee's plea and sentencing. In the comments which were attributed to White, she said the family agreed to the sentence which was given, but in an interview with the Greenwood Today staff, the family denied this, saying they did not agree to accept the sentence Keesee received and wanted him to serve at least five years of prison time.
While Peace argued for the light sentence, claiming "999 out of 1,000 juries would return a verdict of not guilty", Dr. Keith Durbin, a sexual crimes researcher who is the Associate Editor of Deviant Behavior: An Interdisciplinary Journal and has served as an expert witness in cases involving a sex crime against a minor, challenged Peace's claim: "I would love to see that (statistic) published somewhere. That has not been the experience of anyone I know."
Durkin pointed out that psychological evaluations should precede any sentencing in these cases, but the Greenwood Today staff were unable to determine if Keesee ever received any psychological evaluations before being allowed to enter his guilty plea.
These allegations have fueled the increasingly-heated battle between Peace and Stumbo, who spent several years prosecuting cases involving internet predators and child exploitation, as they head for a showdown in next month's GOP primary.