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

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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.

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