The past day or so, I’ve had several people see me in court and express shock over the discovery of a probation sentence given five years ago, in 2009, to du Pont family heir Robert H. Richards IV, following his agreement at that time to plead guilty to fourth-degree rape of his own daughter. Across the country and the internet, there is outrage that the judge in the case sentenced Richards to probation, without prison time.
Despite the fact that the documents in the case were never sealed, the ruling somehow managed to escape notice until last month (March 2014,) when Richards’ former wife, Tracy Richards, filed a lawsuit in Delaware Superior Court on behalf of their children alleging “personal injuries arising from childhood sexual abuse.” The 11-page suit alleges that not only was their daughter abused, but that Richards sexually abused their son, too. The suit seeks unspecified monetary damages. So, it seems that this news can be filed under “Eventually, the truth wins out.”
On the surface, this sentence, in response to the guilty plea on a charge of rape, seems shocking. But people need to understand the details that drive such a sentencing decision. Understand: I’m not necessarily “excusing” this sentence, I’m just explaining it. As a Boston Massachusetts sex crimes lawyer, I know all too well how complex these cases can become.
First, some realities about sex crimes trials, especially involving children:
• Without physical evidence, a getting a conviction from a jury is often more unlikely that unlikely.
• The only real witness in this case, from what I understand, was the child who was alleged to be the victim. Children make extremely unreliable witnesses. They can’t be coached, they don’t understand complicated issues, and what they say can be entirely unpredictable. Further, their testimony is subject to successful attack on cross-examination, which further victimizes them. To put a young child witness on the stand, is always a losing strategy from the word “Go.” The dynamic pits the word of the child against the word of the defendant – who in this case was her own father. Not a promising testimonial structure, at all.
• For the prosecution to have not offered or considered accepting a plea here, would have been foolish, because I am told that the case was circumstantial and weak.
• Accepting a Guilty plea meant: 1) A felony sex crime conviction for the defendant, 2) A criminal record that Richards would have forever, 3) A requirement that Richards officially register as a sex offender, and 4) A requirement that he receive psychological treatment as a sex offender.
All of the above important prosecution victories would have been lost, if the prosecution refused to consider a plea deal – especially with no forensic evidence, and the only prosecution witness being a child. Who says the prosecution’s case was weak? Delaware Attorney General Beau Biden (Vice President Joe Biden’s son.) Biden said April 3 that the 2009 case against Richards was weak and prosecutors offered an appropriate plea bargain that spared him prison while convicting him of a felony sex crime. "This was not a strong case, and losing at trial was a distinct possibility,'' Biden wrote, citing a lack of physical evidence.
That leaves the judge, and her decision, for analysis. Wilmington, Delaware Superior Court Judge Jan Jurden sentenced Richards to eight years in prison, but suspended the prison time for probation. Additionally, she ordered that Richards get sex offender evaluation and treatment, and not to have contact with children under 16 (the last item being admittedly an essentially impossible order to preemptively enforce, on a practical, real-world basis.) The judge’s sentence has led to threats against her safety and widespread demands for her removal from the bench. Some of the threats are so serious that the state of Delaware has had to provide her with security details. Patricia W. Griffin, Delaware state court administrator, stated that “We are taking the threats seriously, and making sure the judge is secured.”
Most of the public protest and outrage over Jurden's 2009 sentencing of Richards was over her written notes that he would not "fare well'' in prison. In my view as a Wrentham Mass sex charges attorney, making these comments was one foolish move. I think the prosecution was smart to accept the plea deal that it did. It secured a sex offense conviction of Richards, which resulted in him being forced to register as a sex offender, aside from getting treatment.
Jurden’s sentence of eight years in prison was within suggested sentencing guidelines. I don’t find anything inappropriate in this aspect of the case, either. And given the defendant’s willingness to plead guilty, I think that suspension of some of that sentence was appropriate. But the judge was foolish and imprudent in sparing Richards any time jail time whatsoever. How she could not see that the unavoidable impression would result that Richards’ status as an a heir to a multimillion dollar fortune, somehow, someway “bought” his way out of prison time, is incredible to me as a Wrentham Mass. sex offense lawyer. It strikes me as incredibly blind and myopic. Were I the judge, I would have probably sentenced him to at or near the eight years this judge did, and suspended all but two years. Thus, Richards would have served two years behind bars. Public confidence that the criminal justice system is blind to all, regardless of their wealth or status, is critical to the proper administration of justice.
As Massachusetts judges are, judge Jurden was appointed to the bench, in 2001. However, the big difference is that in Massachusetts, judicial appointments are lifetime; in Delaware, they are for a 12-year-term. The judge was reappointed last year by Gov. Jack Markell. She had applied in 2012 to become a Supreme Court justice in Delaware, but was passed over.
If she stays on the bench as a result of this controversy, this judge needs a reality check. Her sentence, while technically within sentencing guidelines, was imprudent and inappropriate relative to a guilty plea to rape - especially rape of a young child. Case closed.