For the third time in three weeks, District Judge John Bosch set aside a plea agreement Thursday, this time handing a more lenient sentence to a man accused of starting a fire at a construction site in the summer of 2012.
The case is out of Clay County and involves a then 21-year-old Marysville construction worker named Thomas Cramer III. During a moment of on-the-job horseplay, Cramer lit gas being poured into a roller. His stunt injured a co-worker who was forced to quickly jump out of harm’s way.
Cramer was charged with aggravated arson and aggravated battery by Clay County Attorney Rick James, but those charges were amended to the misdemeanor offenses of criminal damage to property and simple battery following negotiations with Cramer’s lawyer.
Instead of a prison sentence, the attorneys agreed on one year in the county jail. But on Thursday, Judge Bosch, who was an attorney in Clay County prior to being named to the bench by Gov. Brownback last year, disregarded that recommended sentence in favor of 12 months of supervised probation.
During Cramer’s lengthy sentencing, the judge noted the defendant’s age, the fact that the incident occurred as a result of horseplay and Cramer’s willingness to help put out the fire—putting himself in as much danger as the person who was actually hurt.
James said that Cramer, who had previously served time in prison on an unrelated offense, would have been subject to three years in prison if convicted of the original felony charges under the Kansas Sentencing Guidelines. He added that the plea agreement itself was intended to show mercy for Cramer’s age and to factor in the reality that the crime had been committed while horsing around.
Though judges are not bound to the recommended sentences within plea agreements, court officials have indicated that it is fairly rare for judges to depart from them.
The Cramer ruling followed Judge Bosch’s recent decision to forego prison time for Miles Theurer, 24, a K-State graduate student convicted of killing two people in a drunk-driving accident in May 2012.
Theurer, at the request of his lawyer, was sentenced to 60 days in jail followed by 36-months of probation, instead of the recommended sentence of 41 months in prison as laid out in his plea agreement. The Riley County Attorney’s office is appealing the sentence.
Though not as serious a case as Theurer’s, James said Judge Bosch’s sentencing in the Cramer case has been viewed as “outrageous” in Clay County.
The Cramer decision follows an earlier Clay County case in which Judge Bosch departed from a plea agreement. In that case, James Roberts, an Oklahoma man accused of shooting and killing a dog with a bow and arrow while on a hunting trip in 2010, was fined $500 by the judge, who disregarded a plea agreement recommending a $5,000 fine and 10 days in jail.
James said the man was sentenced to probation for as long as it took him to pay the fine, which turned out to be about five minutes, he said—Roberts departed the sentencing hearing and immediately walked across to the clerk’s office. He was then free to return to Oklahoma.
Roberts reportedly killed the dog, a family pet, after it interfered with his hunt. He pleaded to the misdemeanor charges of animal cruelty and criminal damage to property, though James said prior to the plea he had pursued felony charges.
“The northern half of (Clay County) is just inflamed,” James said of the Roberts sentencing, which took place about a week prior to Theurer’s June sentencing.
James, who has been the Clay County attorney for eight years, said plea agreements have been departed from in the past, but said the sentences were made stiffer, not more lenient. He estimated that the departures had occurred maybe three or four times in those eight years.
He predicted the departures could have a lasting effect on court proceedings in that attorneys will be discouraged from seeking plea agreements if they believe the agreements will be set aside.
“There has to be some level of trust between county attorneys, the judge and defense attorneys,” James said.