Are there more indictments to come?

Published 11:08 am Thursday, November 20, 2008

One of the dreaded feelings that can enter into the pit of one’s stomach comes when flashing blue lights appear in a rearview mirror and a quick glance at the speedometer reveals the reason.

Before an officer ever makes his way to the vehicle the driver knows what’s about to unfold and they all have the same hope … that the officer will cut them a break. It happens every single day.

Some days drivers get lucky. Other days not.

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But on a similar occasion in Ironton recently, an officer apparently made a mistake. Sgt. Beth Rist tried to do a good deed by trying to assist a woman who was driving with a suspended license. But in the process, she seemingly violated the law, was fired and now faces tampering with evidence charges that were delivered by a Lawrence County grand jury.

But how it got to that point is worthy of examination.

Rist’s legal counsel, Warren Morford, issued a press release indicating that Prosecutor J.B. Collier, Jr., gave Rist an option to drop a grievance she filed with the city or face the consequences of a grand jury. On Wednesday, Collier confirmed that scenario was accurate.

Certain-ly, I don’t pretend to be any great legal mind, or a legal mind of any sort for that matter. But what I do know is the public should have concern with this type of tactic.

Rist, who has had successful litigation against the city of Ironton in the past for discrimination, believed she was fired unfairly because, she claims, similar actions by other police officers did not result in their firing. So, she filed a grievance to keep her job.

The grievance is perfectly within her rights and she was entitled to go through that process to have her story told, even if that means some embarrassment for other officers and the city.

But that perfectly valid process was threatened by the county prosecutor. Why the ultimatum was given is unclear. What’s even more puzzling is why she has been indicted now if she was not going to be indicted if the grievance went away.

In other words, the county prosecutor’s job is to indict criminals on actions that violate the law. If Collier believed Rist deserved to be indicted, he should have done so regardless of the grievance. It appears the only reason Rist was indicted was because she opted to continue with her grievance, and that action means this issue has turned into a question of Collier’s ethics.

Beyond that, the way it was handled compromises the public’s interests. Whether a person faces charges that could lead to jail time should not be determined by whether a potential defendant wants to be agreeable.

There is a clear distinction between Collier’s tactic and plea bargaining. In plea bargaining, there is negotiation on what a proper penalty should be and if there is no agreement then the case goes to court.

In this case, the prosecutor was determining whether her actions rose to the level of an indictment based on whether she was going to play ball.

The point has nothing to do with Rist’s guilt or innocence, but rather how justice should be sought in Lawrence County. If the accusations against Rist are accurate, she should be penalized in some way because those would be very serious errors.

And, clearly, because Rist has been indicted for her alleged transgressions, the prosecutor — as a matter of fairness — needs to be prepared to indict all officers who committed similar acts within the Ironton Police Department, or any law enforcement agency for that matter.

The prosecutor cannot be selective on who gets a break.

Rick Greene is the managing editor of The Ironton Tribune. He can be reached at (740) 532-1441, ext. 12, or by e-mail at