The liberal candidate in a contentious race to fill a vacancy on the Wisconsin Supreme Court is having to defend accusations that she has given some violent offenders light sentences.
Though Wisconsin Supreme Court races are officially non-partisan, there seems to be little doubt about the political persuasions of both candidates. Former Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Dan Kelly was initially appointed to the court in 2016 by then-Gov. Scott Walker (R). The conservative justice lost re-election in 2020, but is seeking to return.
Kelly's opponent, Milwaukee County Judge Janet Protasiewicz, has collected hundreds of thousands of dollars for her campaign, much of it from out-of-state Democrats and their supporters. Protasiewicz has professed support for so-called abortion rights and argued that in overturning Roe, the U.S. Supreme Court ignored "the will of the people."
However, Protasiewicz has been largely criticized for the light sentences she has issued to some violent offenders. For example, in September 2020, Kenneth D. Wright, 28, pled guilty to third-degree sexual assault after he kidnapped a 15-year-old, raped her, continued a sexual relationship with her, and eventually impregnated her.
At his sentencing, Wright expressed no remorse and may have even blamed the victim and her parents for the assaults. Despite the horrific details of the crime and Wright's lack of contrition, Protasiewicz gave him no jail time.
"But for COVID, I would be giving you some House of Correction time," she said at sentencing. "These are strange times, Mr. Wright. I’m not going to do that."
That light sentence had deadly consequences. Less than a year later, Wright was driving under the influence in Milwaukee when he hit a speed of over 80 mph in a 30-mph zone and crashed his vehicle. The force of the crash caused Wright's passenger, Jamera Doyle, to be ejected from the vehicle. She was pronounced dead at the scene, and Wright later pled guilty to reckless homicide.
Wright is not the only sexual predator whom Protasiewicz treated lightly from the bench. In late 2017,Jovian Reese, then 18, raped his cousin after she fell asleep while at his home. She awoke during the assault and ran to report it to her sister. Though Reese initially denied the accusations, her DNA was found on his penis, and his DNA was discovered on her breasts.
In March 2019 at Reese's sentencing for third-degree sexual assault, Protasiewicz apparently doubted the claims the victim made in her impact statement and instead seemed to treat the crime as a possible learning opportunity.
"Are you a danger to the public? I don't think so," she said to Reese. "I mean, I don’t think that you did anything other than engage in a crime of opportunity; and hopefully you’ve learned your lesson."
During a recent debate when Kelly cited these examples and others to demonstrate Protasiewicz's soft-on-crime approach, Protasiewicz accused Kelly of lying and requested to see court transcripts because "that certainly doesn’t sound like anything I would do."
The Wisconsin GOP has also claimed that Protasiewicz gave no jail time to a woman who starved her son to death. Hector Pizarro weighed just 42 lbs. when he died a few years ago at age 16. His muscles were so deteriorated that his bones were visible, and reports indicate that his mother, Iraida Pizarro-Osorio, locked him in his room at night. In December 2020, Protasiewicz stayed Pizarro-Osorio's initial four-year prison sentence and instead sentenced her to four years of probation.
The special election to fill the Wisconsin Supreme Court vacancy left by the retirement of conservative Justice Patience Roggensack will be held on April 4. In the primary held last month, Protasiewicz cruised to an easy first-place finish, garnering 46% of the vote to Kelly's second-place finish of 24%. However, new polling released by conservative radio host Dan O'Donnell indicates that Kelly may now be within the margin of error.
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