Speaking Truth to Power

Deters staffer threatens head of local group that criticizes the Hamilton County prosecutor

Nov 19, 2008 at 2:06 pm

A woman who created a group to protest what she calls the unprofessional conduct of Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters says a detective on his staff recently called her and tried to intimidate her into stopping the group’s high-profile criticism.

Franki Butler-Kidd, who heads “Citizens Against Joe Deters,” says a detective e-mailed and then telephoned her on Nov. 12 to warn her that Deters would file a lawsuit alleging defamation of character unless Kidd stopped the group’s activities and her criticism of Deters on a blog.

The detective, McKinley E. Brown, is employed by the Prosecutor’s Office and sent the initial e-mail to Kidd using an official Hamilton County e-mail account. The email asked Kidd to call him and, if he wasn’t available, to leave a number where she could be reached.

“I found the whole thing highly unusual and really weird,” Kidd says. “I definitely felt like I was being threatened. There are a lot of people frustrated with Joe Deters and how he runs his office. I feel like I’m being singled out.

“Everything I’ve spoken out about or written has been a matter of public information. What makes me any different than newspapers or anyone else who’s written about him?”

Kidd says Brown told her on the telephone that Deters held a meeting with some staff members that morning, on Nov. 12, to discuss her activities. Brown told her that Deters was planning to sue, according to Kidd.

“I told him that I didn’t have anything to lose,” Kidd says. “And he said, ‘Oh, yes you do. You have kids.’ ”

The exchange continued and Brown began fishing for information, she says. “He said, ‘I want to protect you, but we want to know who’s feeding you information. Don’t you know you’re just a pawn?’ ”

Kidd provided CityBeat with Brown’s e-mail, sent from a Prosecutor’s Office address, seeking to have a telephone conversation with her.

Neither Deters nor Brown responded to requests for comment for this story. Although a Prosecutor’s Office spokeswoman said some sort of official response would be forthcoming, it hadn’t arrived five days after the request was made.

Kidd formed “Citizens Against Joe Deters” (citizensagainstjoedeters.blogspot.com) in September after she became disturbed by what she termed unequal application of justice by Deters’ office. She believes the Prosecutor’s Office routinely seeks more serious charges and penalties against poor and minority residents compared to suspects in similar situations who are white and more affluent.

The group describes itself as “a grassroots organization of citizens who are frustrated by Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters’ double standard of justice and public insults against people of color, people who aren’t wealthy, and people who aren’t well-connected. Our organization’s mission is simple — pressure Joe Deters to resign from his position as Hamilton County prosecutor.”

Although the group has only about a dozen members, it collected roughly 600 signatures on a petition protesting Deters’ job performance.

The organization also has staged several public events, such as an Oct. 24 Halloween-themed protest in front of Deters’ downtown office when members handed out candy to minorities and poor people but not to those they deemed to be privileged.

“Unfair? So is double-standard sentences dished out by Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters,” a press release stated. “Clearly, there are two criminal justice systems in Hamilton County.”

Their concern is shared by the NAACP’s Cincinnati chapter.

The NAACP has criticized Deters’ handling of several cases, most recently his September decision not to prosecute Jodie Edwards for the death of her infant child, who was left strapped in the seat of a van in East Price Hill during a hot summer day and forgotten while Edwards went to work. Deters has said Edwards couldn’t be charged with child endangerment because she lacked any intent to harm her child, but the NAACP counters that there are African-American mothers who have been charged with the same offense in less serious cases when their children didn’t die.

At the least, the NAACP adds, the Edwards case should have been presented to a grand jury to let it determine if criminal charges — such as a lesser charge of recklessness — were warranted.

NAACP President Christopher Smitherman compares the Edwards case to that of Kena Ross, a Winton Hills woman who was convicted in October on three counts of child endangering for handcuffing her children to prevent them from hoarding food. She was sentenced to two years in prison last week.

“We are not condoning that behavior or saying she shouldn’t be punished, but that seems excessive compared to the Edwards case and other cases, where the children end up dead,” Smitherman says. “Why didn’t the Edwards case go to a grand jury? Mr. Deters continues to overcharge.”

Part of the problem, he adds, is that only seven or so attorneys on Deters’ 100-member-plus legal staff are African Americans and the prosecutor makes no special effort to recruit minorities.

If Deters did have a staffer call Kidd and threaten her with a lawsuit, he should be held accountable, Smitherman adds.

“It’s highly inappropriate,” he says. “It’s an abuse of power.”

Laws governing conduct on emerging new media like blogs and Web sites still are evolving but, just as with newspapers and magazines, people deemed to be public officials are held to a different standard than private citizens when it comes to criticism.

In its guide for bloggers, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) offers some guidelines about online defamation law. “Generally, defamation is a false and unprivileged statement of fact that is harmful to someone’s reputation, and published ‘with fault,’ meaning as a result of negligence or malice,” the EFF’s guide states.

But there is a difference between private and public figures, it continues.

“A private figure claiming defamation … only has to prove you acted negligently, which is to say that a ‘reasonable person’ would not have published the defamatory statement,” the guide states. “A public figure must show ‘actual malice’ — that you published with either knowledge of falsity or in reckless disregard for the truth. This is a difficult standard for a plaintiff to meet.”

Public figures are described as “someone who has actively sought, in a given matter of public interest, to influence the resolution of the matter. In addition to the obvious public figures — a government employee, a senator, a presidential candidate — someone may be a limited-purpose public figure. A limited-purpose public figure is one who voluntarily participates in a discussion about a public controversy, and has access to the media to get his or her own view across.”

Alphonse Gerhardstein Jr., a prominent local civil rights attorney, says Deters should be aware that it would be legally difficult, if not impossible, to prove defamation of character.

“The answer to any allegation is more speech and exposing any misrepresentation of facts rather than a coercive act,” Gerhardstein says. “To intimidate somebody or have a member of law enforcement staff make a call, that’s wrong.”

A Milford resident, Kidd works for a nonprofit agency. She became familiar with the Prosecutor’s Office due to an incident involving her son, Andrew Butler, age 20.

A University of Toledo student, Butler was convicted in December on two charges of aggravated robbery and six charges of kidnapping. The charges stem from the robbery of a Reading bank last summer and a botched hold-up of a check-cashing business to get money to help pay for college tuition. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison.

“It was a personal situation that first got me involved and made me do some research,” Kidd says. “There’s always going to be something personal to bring you to a cause, but you have to have a passion to keep it going. I get a lot of e-mails every day. There are a lot of people frustrated with Deters.”

Kidd acknowledges the incident on her blog, trying to see the benefit from a negative situation.

One blog entry reads, “Finally to my beloved, Andrew. Thank you for robbing that bank and being sent to prison for 20 years (Yes, Joe Deters lied about the 12-year deal). If not for your crime I would not fight passionately to end racial disparities in sentencing. I would not write my youth column to help other young people not make the same mistake as you. I would not fight for human rights.

“I love you and I forgive you.”