Community prompts Judge to reconsider sex offenders sentence

Neighborhood presence in court caused a Hennepin County judge to back out of a plea agreement for level-three sex offender and neighborhood nuisance Damon Moore
 
When Hennepin County District Court Judge Peter Albrecht negotiated a plea agreement to release sex offender and chronic neighborhood nuisance Damon Moore on probation following an April arrest, residents in Stevens Square and Whittier were shocked.

Moore had been arrested for nuisance crimes such as trespassing and consuming alcohol in public 17 times in the past year, 10 times in Southwest. He was on the city’s list of the top 100 chronic offenders and was a level-three sex offender — deemed the most likely to re-offend.

The April incident involved sexual assault, theft, drug possession and public alcohol consumption.

In an attempt to change Albrecht’s mind about Moore, three Stevens Square community members showed up to read impact statements in court, something they’ve done countless times before without success. But this time was different.

“I think I made a bad decision when I reached the agreement,” Albrecht said in court.

He backed out on the plea agreement in favor of a tougher sentence, something community members said they almost never see and something Albrecht said he’s only done about a half dozen times during his 30-year career.

Assistant Hennepin County Attorney Elizabeth Cutter, who filled in as prosecutor for the Moore case during sentencing, said she could only remember one other instance during her 16-year career handling criminal cases in which a judge changed a sentence.

“It’s unusual for me,” Albrecht said in an interview after the sentencing. “We reach these plea agreements trying to move a vast number of cases through the system. The public just is not willing to pay taxes to have enough judges, lawyers, etc.”

Albrecht said 90 percent of the cases that come through Hennepin County District Court are plea-bargained because the system is so underfunded. If every case were tried, the courts would be backed up for years, he said.   

“The plea bargains are reached for any number of reasons,” he said. “We have to resolve as many cases as we can. There’s just this tremendous pressure to settle cases.”

Listening to Stevens Square Community Organization (SCCO) representative Dave Delvoye and neighborhood residents Helen Grams and Ken Strobel talk about Moore’s impact on the community led Albrecht to change his mind, he said. He sentenced Moore to five-and-a-half months in the Hennepin County Workhouse and an additional seven months of parole.

Albrecht said the community members put a human face on the case, something he often doesn’t see in the courtroom. Articulate statements — some submitted in writing prior to sentencing — also helped him make his decision, but being able to look community members in the eye was particularly compelling.

“It’s one thing to deal with these cases when it’s all numbers and writing and police reports,” he said. “It’s another thing when you see that victim standing there.”

A statement from Hennepin County Probation Officer Tanya Parks, who argued that Moore’s history showed he couldn’t be trusted if released, was also persuasive, Albrecht said.  

 “This case is an exception to me where it’s just so clear that (Moore is) not going to abide by probation, where changed my mind,” he said. “And the fact that the community had these people coming down speaking for them; that in it of itself said a lot.”

Moore sat with his arms crossed in the courtroom, as Delvoye, Grams and Strobel read statements calling him a dangerous a predator who abused the system.

Moore said at a continuation of the sentencing a day later that he planned to leave town after being released.

Delvoye, who makes frequent court appearances on behalf of the SSCO, said the sentence for Moore was not as harsh as he would have liked to see for a level-three sex offender, but it was more than he expected.

“Usually our experience is that we’re just ignored,” he said.

But that hasn’t discouraged him from showing up before a judge.

“It’s our only opportunity to try to hold the judges accountable for their decisions,” he said.

Delvoye said the neighborhood group works with a law-enforcement network of police, probation officers and attorneys behind the scenes to track cases and influence sentences. That effort paid off in Moore’s case, he said.  

Josie Shardlow, community organizer with the Whittier Alliance, said her neighborhood has been keeping an eye on Moore as well, since some of his arrests have taken place there. She said it seemed as though Albrecht wasn’t getting the community’s message about Moore and was pleased with the final sentencing, even though it wasn’t the maximum of nearly a year in prison.

“Just to have him go away is a big deal,” she said.

Grams, a longtime Stevens Square community member who has made many court appearances, said Judge Albrecht’s decision was a nice surprise and gave her reason to be optimistic about the court system.

“I find it incredible that he can say ‘I made a mistake,’” she said. “I think he’s stronger for it.

Reach Jake Weyer at 436-4367 or jweyer@mnpubs.com.