St. Louis’ Justice System Grapples Daily with an Impossible Question: What Punishment Fits the Crime?

Deborah Pierce, left, stole $375,000 from Webster University and was sentenced to write a diary.
Deborah Pierce, left, stole $375,000 from Webster University and was sentenced to write a diary. PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY EVAN SULT

Nothing about Deborah Pierce's background suggested she was a crook.

Then again, that's how it works. White-collar thieves are able to steal a lot of money, because they seem trustworthy enough to oversee lots of money.

Pierce, now 63, was hired in 2007 as the director of the Confucius Institute at Webster University after nearly 30 years as a foreign languages professor at Mississippi College, her alma mater. It wasn't just that she was respected in her field; students and colleagues loved her for her generosity and nurturing ways outside of class. In letters written on her behalf and collected in a federal court file, they credit her with keeping them afloat with homemade dinners, tuition money and motherly support when they needed it most.

"My first week at Webster I met Debbie Pierce," writes one former student, who came to study in St. Louis after surviving the Rwandan genocide. "That was the luckiest day of my life."

And so it came as a shock to many when a federal indictment revealed that the beloved academic, a daughter of Southern Baptist missionaries, had been embezzling money from her employer for more than two years.

The institute was a partnership, jointly funded by the university and Chinese government to promote research and exchange of cultures. Pierce had set up a secret bank account in September 2013 to divert payments from the Chinese Ministry of Education and used them to pay her bills and those of her family.

She was caught in 2016 when an internal audit by Webster uncovered problems with the institute's books. That led to an investigation by the FBI and U.S. Postal Inspection Service. Federal authorities would eventually tally the amount of missing money at $375,000.

The fallout was swift. Pierce resigned even before her arrest in November 2016. Her husband, who also worked for the institute but was not implicated in the fraud, resigned as well. She pleaded guilty to one count of transporting goods across state lines the following September and was scheduled for sentencing in March 2018.

All of that led to the inevitable question: What would be a just punishment?

Every day across the country, versions of that question are taken up by judges, jurors, prosecutors and defense attorneys in an endless stream of cases. They are debated by criminal justice reformers, victims' advocates, law enforcement and the elected officials tasked with protecting or reshaping key components of our system, such as mandatory minimums or whether felons should be allowed to vote. This August, they are sure to be front and center when former St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger gets sentenced in his pay-to-play case. Stenger's case has more than a few things in common with Pierce's, from his status as a first-time offender to his guilty plea. Stenger and Pierce are even represented by the same law firm. (Perhaps you've heard of Rosenblum Schwartz & Fry, home to prominent defense attorney Scott Rosenblum?)

Often, the outcomes hinge on almost random variables: the jurisdiction where the case is being handled, the attorneys or judges involved, even shifting attitudes toward punishment. Penalties are generally more severe in federal court, but not always.

Mary Fox, who leads the St. Louis office of the state public defender, says we have grown comfortable as a society with long prison sentences, nearly oblivious to the extreme act that is locking a human in a cage.

"For 95 percent of the people that come through the criminal justice system, it's a spur-of-the-moment bad decision," she says. "We respond to that moment with a very lengthy sentence."

Often, those bad decisions are made by men so young their brains are still developing, Fox adds. And yet those moments can freeze them in place with long-running prison terms. Curious one day, Fox researched the origins of jailing people who break society's rules. At first, it began as a way to hold people until violent punishments, such as death, could be administered. But it soon became the punishment itself, a progressive alternative to lynchings or beatings. The English are often credited with creating the modern prison system in the 1700s and 1800s. It has evolved some in the past two or three centuries, but Fox finds it odd that it has not been supplanted with something better.

"We really haven't advanced much from those days," she says. "We still don't know how to deal with people we're mad at."

Missouri is one of the few states in the country that has seen its prison population continue to grow in recent years. The Sentencing Project — a research and advocacy organization working against mass incarceration — looked at state and federal prison populations across the nation, comparing each state's number of people locked up in 2016 to its highest-ever totals. All but eight states had seen at least minor decreases from their peak years.

But Missouri's prison population was larger than ever. In 2016, it had increased by a little more than five percent over the previous five years. Legislation has been introduced in Missouri that would reduce the prison population, says Nicole Porter of the Sentencing Project, such as eliminating sentences of life without parole. But other than some minor reforms with limited impact, the bills have so far hit political walls in the legislature.

That has kept the state from moving resources from prisons to prevention, Porter says.

"In order for Missouri to pass significant changes that would lower the number of people in prison and open up resources to crime prevention, there would have to be a significant shift," she says.

Even so, St. Charles County Prosecuting Attorney Tim Lohmar, who is the president of the Missouri Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, says he has seen a change over time in the way prosecutors approach sentencing, especially when it comes to drug cases or low-level offenses.

"Fifteen years ago, I think a lot of prosecutors and the judiciary wouldn't think twice about sentencing a person without a prior offense to prison," he says.

Assistant prosecutors in St. Charles County will still start with a recommendation of prison for the most serious felonies, he says, which include violence and crimes against children. One of the first priorities is to keep the public safe from dangerous people. People who continue to re-offend and have shown themselves unlikely to change also merit prison sentences, in his eyes.

After that, though, Lohmar says the general policy in St. Charles is to seek other alternatives for people convicted of mid-level felonies or lower.

"We're looking to keep people out of jail," he says.

Still, he balks at some of the bills proposed by reformers. Lohmar says the best way to reduce the prison population is not by limiting sentences on the front end, but by allowing the state parole system to continue to determine which inmates have proven themselves worthy of release.

"You're putting a significant amount of responsibility on the inmates" to demonstrate good behavior, he says.

In making any recommendation on sentencing, he says he considers unique aspects of the case, such as the age of the defendant, the need for closure for victims and what combination of conditions — possibly including prison — could prevent defendants from repeating their crimes.

In the end, however, prosecutors are only one voice in the process.

Deborah Pierce embezzled $375,000. Her punishment was to pay it back and write a journal for 60 days.
Deborah Pierce embezzled $375,000. Her punishment was to pay it back and write a journal for 60 days.

Former U.S. Attorney Tom Albus prosecuted Deborah Pierce, the Webster embezzler. Going into the sentencing, he weighed a number of factors before recommending prison time. For one, it was not a violent crime, and Pierce had no criminal record. Also, the risk of recidivism was low, if for no other reason than her plea had almost certainly ended her career — and with it, the opportunity to embezzle from her employer.

On the other hand, this was not a spur-of-the-moment mistake. Pierce had taken deliberate steps over time to set up the account and then steal the money in one transaction after another. Examples cited in the indictment included a $10,000 check she wrote to herself, payments totaling $9,500 that she made on her son's student loans and $20,619.91 transferred to her husband's retirement fund. She helped to conceal her thievery by ensuring the bank statements were sent to her home, instead of the institute or university.

Pierce was obviously well educated and seemed to have been law-abiding until this episode. But maybe those factors made her crime that much more offensive, Albus reasons. She clearly had other options.

"In some ways, it makes it worse to steal that money," says Albus, who is now with the state Attorney General's Office.

Any sentence was likely to include an order to repay the money, but prosecutors felt like there should be at least some prison time, if only as a deterrent to others pondering similar schemes.

"It's not simply a matter of, 'Alright, I got caught. I'll give it back, and I'd like to go home now,'" Albus says.

However, that is essentially what happened.

Rather than prison time, U.S. District Judge Henry Autrey ordered Pierce to write a 65-page journal over 60 days, reflecting on her crimes. She must also repay the $375,000 she stole.

The disgraced academic sold her Compton Heights house — for $375,000 — after her arrest. She is now serving five years probation with her family in Mississippi, where she cares for her ailing mother and babysits her granddaughter.

The punishment certainly raised some eyebrows. Pierce's own attorney, Adam Fein, had suggested a sentence of twelve months would be adequate. In an editorial, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch called it a "prime example of skewed racial justice." The newspaper pointed out that Judge Autrey had told Pierce he planned to show her journal to participants assigned to his gang court, so they would know that people who aren't "poor, from the hood and black" also commit crimes.

"What Pierce's sentence will really show them is that justice is not color blind," the editorial said. "It will show them that white privilege equals a get out of jail free card."

The Riverfront Times asked Autrey if we could read Pierce's journal, but he refused in a message relayed by an assistant, saying it was for his eyes only as part of her post-conviction supervision. The judge also declined to discuss the case with the RFT, saying that doing so would violate judicial ethics. It is not clear whether he ever showed the journal to the people in gang court.

Pierce did not respond to our interview request. Her attorney, Fein, declined to comment.

Autrey had access to information that the public does not. Pierce's pre-sentence report — one of the mini biographies assembled by probation officers — has been sealed, which is typical.

Albus says he respects Autrey, whom he described as "thoughtful." The longtime prosecutor spent seventeen years with the U.S. Attorney's Office and learned early on that every person plays their role. His job was to present the government's case. Autrey's job was to impose whatever sentence he thought best.

"I would say I was surprised," Albus says. "But again, you're comfortable with your role."

Pierce's case stood out in part because it appeared to be a step outside of norms — a seemingly law-abiding academic who turns to crime late in life is given a surprise reprieve through an unexpected sentence. But determining what is normal is tricky business when it comes to the justice system and, specifically, sentencing.

The RFT culled a dozen cases from news stories and court records in recent years. Some were in state court, some in federal. Some of the defendants had long criminal histories, some didn't. They committed all types of crimes and received all types of sentences.

Overall, they provide a fascinating snapshot of the way the justice system doles out punishment — and the way each case can have a logic of its own.

Defendant: Joniesse Redmond
Age at time of arrest: 17
Crime: Involuntary Manslaughter (Two Counts), Second-Degree Assault (Two Counts)
Sentence: Six years in state prison
Synopsis: Redmond was a sixteen-year-old, unlicensed driver in November 2016 when she slammed into a tree, killing two of her five passengers: a fifteen-year-old and a sixteen-year-old. The teen reportedly said she "was gonna at least try to hit 120" miles per hour but lost control of the car going around a curve in Jennings. She was tried as an adult.

Defendant: Sydney Cates
Age at time of arrest: 19
Crime: Tampering With a Motor Vehicle
Sentence: Three years in state prison — suspended in favor of five years probation
Synopsis: Sheriff's deputies in Fairview Heights, Illinois, learned that a stolen vehicle was probably across the Missouri state line in the small town of Union. Franklin County sheriff's deputies responded and found both the stolen vehicle and their suspect — Cates. As long as she complies with probation terms, she will not have to serve her prison sentence.

Defendant: Rey Hernandez
Age at time of arrest: 18
Crime: First-Degree Murder (Two Counts)
Sentence: Life without parole
Synopsis: Hernandez ambushed 23-year-old James Cobb and Cobb's best friend, 22-year-old Haris Hajdarevic, during a fatal shooting in 2015 in the Bevo Mill neighborhood. Hernandez was dating Cobb's ex-girlfriend, and he had been arguing with Cobb online before the killings.

Defendant: David Lopez Jackson
Age at time of arrest: 35
Crime: Second-Degree Arson (Two Counts)
Sentence: Five years in state prison
Synopsis: Jackson was arrested in October 2015 following a string of church fires, mostly in north St. Louis County. He underwent a mental health evaluation and was found competent to stand trial. He eventually admitted in his guilty plea to setting two of the fires.

Defendant: Cory Hutcheson
Age at time of arrest: 34
Crime: Identity Theft, Wire Fraud
Sentence: Six months in federal prison, four months house arrest, five years probation
Synopsis: Hutcheson was the former jail supervisor and then the elected sheriff of Mississippi County, Missouri. He was facing 28 charges in federal and state court for a wide range of crimes, including robbery and assault, but pleaded guilty in November 2018 to identity theft and wire fraud as part of a deal with prosecutors. The remaining charges result from Hutcheson illegally tracking the cellphones of multiple victims, including state troopers and a judge.

Defendant: Sylvester Caldwell
Age at time of arrest: 54
Crime: Extortion
Sentence: 33 months in federal prison
Synopsis: As mayor of Pine Lawn, Caldwell shook down local businesses, including a towing company, for bribes. The owner of the towing company was cooperating with the FBI and recorded the politician asking for "green Mountain Dew in a cup" — code for cash in the kickback scheme.

Defendant: David Politte
Age at time of arrest: 29
Crime: First-Degree Robbery (Three Counts)
Sentence: Thirteen years in state prison
Synopsis: Politte was arrested in 2018 after a pair of bank robberies in Creve Coeur and Normandy. He also robbed a cab driver, reportedly threatening the victim with a flare gun. He was arrested in Normandy after his last heist — a U.S. Bank branch — and still had the money when he was caught.

Defendant: Rodney Gardner
Age at time of arrest: 52
Crime: Hobbs Act Robbery
Sentence: Seven years in federal prison
Synopsis: Gardner viciously beat a worker at Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams in the Central West End, breaking her nose before he snatched the cash register and ran. He was captured after a short foot chase and tussle with city cops. The ex-con had previously served prison time for two counts of first-degree robbery in 1998.

Defendant: Terri Owens
Age at time of arrest: 55
Crime: Bribery
Sentence: Five years probation, 40 hours community services, restitution of $78,000
Synopsis: Owens was one of four former St. Louis police officers charged in a federal indictment with taking bribes from a crooked chiropractor and his wife and giving them accident reports in exchange. She had been a city cop for 26 years.

Defendant: David "Super" Cox
Age at time of arrest: 33
Crime: Unlawful possession of a firearm, property damage (three counts), resisting arrest
Sentence: Ten years in state prison
Synopsis: "Super" graffiti was all over St. Louis, but few knew the identity of the man behind the tags until city cops tracked down Cox using a Walmart receipt left behind at a tagged apartment building. When they went to arrest him in April 2016, he fled in a truck but was later captured, authorities say. Investigators recovered spray cans and a pistol that he wasn't supposed to have, thanks to his previous felony conviction for stealing a credit card.

Defendant: Robert Maurer
Age at time of arrest: 52
Crime: Statutory Sodomy, Failure to Register as a Sex Offender
Sentence: Life without parole
Synopsis: Maurer sexually abused a twelve-year-old girl in 2013 and 2014 in St. Louis County and was found guilty in 2017. He had previously been convicted of similar charges in the early and late 1990s. Adding to his latest crime was the fact that he had not notified law enforcement when he moved back to the city from Florida.

Defendant: Demarcos Bolden
Age at time of arrest: 30
Crime: Use of Interstate Facilities to Promote and Facilitate Prostitution
Sentence: Ten years in federal prison
Synopsis: Bolden and a partner, 24-year-old Alex Coleman, pimped out three prostitutes, one of them a minor. He advertised them online, arranged paid-for sex meetups and collected the money. He kept them under control with heroin, withholding it if they didn't do as told.

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