Claims of ‘rel­a­tively light sen­tence’ are wrong, fa­ther says

The Herald-Sun (Sunday) - - Opinion - BY PE­TER MARINO Pe­ter Marino, a re­tired ben­e­fits ex­ec­u­tive, lives in Bridgeville, Delaware.

In Oc­to­ber, a News & Ob­server ed­i­to­rial en­dors­ing Demo­cratic Wake County Dis­trict At­tor­ney Lor­rin Free­man as­serted that Free­man had agreed to “a rel­a­tively light sen­tence” in the em­bez­zle­ment case of my daugh­ter, for­merWake County Regis­ter of Deeds Laura M. Rid­dick.

The news­pa­per was hardly alone in that as­sess­ment, but the com­mon as­sump­tion is wrong. The truth is the op­po­site – and it’s time to re­spond to mis­taken claims of “a rel­a­tively light sen­tence.”

Rel­a­tive to what, ex­actly? Not com­pared to other em­bez­zlers. Not as to other pub­lic of­fi­cials across North Car­olina, ei­ther. Not even other pub­lic-fig­ure em­bez­zlers in Wake County.

Laura re­ceived the harsh­est sen­tence any­where in North Car­olina – five to seven years in a mixed­cus­tody prison – for an em­bez­zler who took re­spon­si­bil­ity, urged oth­ers to co­op­er­ate, and made full, im­me­di­ate resti­tu­tion of the amount al­leged, al­though it was sharply dis­puted.

This de­spite Laura’s long and oth­er­wise ex­em­plary track record in of­fice, in­clud­ing ma­jor tech­no­log­i­cal ad­vances, su­pe­rior cus­tomer ser­vice, and rare po­lit­i­cal courage, as shown by her is­suance of same-sex mar­riage li­censes the same night a fed­eral court or­der changed the law.

“I’ve been do­ing this job since 2003, and I don’t ever re­call such a suc­cess­ful out­come, as far as the vic­tims’ stand­point is con­cerned,” Dis­trict At­tor­ney Seth Ed­wards said of an $11 mil­lion in­surance case he pros­e­cuted, which re­sulted in zero prison time. “So often, there is not resti­tu­tion, or a very small amount of re­turn on their loss. … Most of the de­fen­dants that come to court have al­ready spent the money.”

You can find N.C. em­bez­zlers sen­tenced to more time than Laura – but none who made full, im­me­di­ate resti­tu­tion. Or have a bad heart and a cir­cu­la­tory dis­or­der. Or were men­tally ill.

At Laura’s sen­tenc­ing, Free­man dis­missed Laura’s ex­pert psy­cho­log­i­cal re­port, which is in the court record. In­stead, Free­man ac­cused Laura of greed, which is false. Laura did not need the money, and she did not live be­yond her fam­ily’s for­tu­nate means. In­stead, she se­cretly banked what she stole.

No one can ex­cuse Laura’s crime, nor deny that she de­served pun­ish­ment. But there is a tragic ex­pla­na­tion for Laura’s of­fense, and it cen­ters on her deep, life­long, ir­ra­tional anx­i­ety dis­or­der as­so­ci­ated with money, the sad legacy of her dif­fi­cult child­hood and re­peated sex­ual abuse.

Free­man knows full well about the dev­as­ta­tion such “ad­verse child­hood ex­pe­ri­ences” can cause, and how they often lead to crim­i­nal of­fenses. Af­ter all, Free­man her­self pub­lished an ar­ti­cle about the con­nec- tion be­tween them in the March 2018 is­sue of the North Car­olina Med­i­cal Jour­nal.

“Most crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem out­comes his­tor­i­cally have fo­cused on the crime while often over­look­ing the root cause of the crim­i­nal be­hav­ior,” Free­man wrote. “… Early stud­ies sug­gest a causal link be­tween [child­hood trauma] and be­hav­ior that leads to crim­i­nal charges later in life.”

If only Free­man had taken that re­al­ity into ac­count in Laura’s well­doc­u­mented case.

For years, as Laura’s men­tal con­di­tion wors­ened, her mother and hus­band re­peat­edly im­plored her to get psy­chi­atric help. She re­fused, fear­ful of the pub­lic stigma sur­round­ing men­tal ill­ness. But Laura never told any­one in her fam­ily, in­clud­ing her hus­band, that she was steal­ing money, as she stated in open court.

The next time Wake County of­fi­cials crow about their pur­ported com­mit­ment to men­tal health aware­ness, re­mem­ber this: they have im­pris­oned for up to seven years a men­tally ill mother with two heart prob­lems who made full resti­tu­tion. That’s raw vengeance, not jus­tice.

At her sen­tenc­ing, Laura apol­o­gized pub­licly to Free­man, the judge, county com­mis­sion­ers, the cus­tomers and staff of the Reg­istry, her fam­ily and friends, and the peo­ple of Wake County. In re­turn for Laura’s con­tri­tion, sub­stan­tial co­op­er­a­tion, and resti­tu­tion, she got clob­bered.

Once in prison, Laura was im­me­di­ately sin­gled out and thrown into soli­tary con­fine­ment, where she lan­guished for al­most a week – fed through a slot in the door of her tiny cell, hand­cuffed and shack­led to use the shower, de­nied her heart drugs and other med­i­ca­tion, and not al­lowed to phone home or even to call her lawyer – os­ten­si­bly for her pro­tec­tion.

Now, five months later and more than 20 pounds skin­nier, Laura sub­sists in bru­tally mixed cus­tody among baby killers, child abusers, armed rob­bers, and drug deal­ers, many with shorter sen­tences than hers. Even af­ter mak­ing full resti­tu­tion, which was ex­tra­or­di­nary, as a pub­lic of­fi­cial Laura had to ex­pect prison time – but surely not five to seven years.

What pur­pose other than ret­ri­bu­tion can such a long sen­tence serve? Laura has paid the money back and will never steal again. Her once-stel­lar ca­reer lies in ru­ins, her rep­u­ta­tion de­stroyed. Her un­sus­pect­ing hus­band, who had noth­ing to do with her crime and learned about it only af­ter she got caught, lost his job. How many pounds of flesh are enough for a non­vi­o­lent crime?

As pub­lic pol­icy, Laura’s se­vere sen­tence inescapably sends the wrong mes­sage to other would-be em­bez­zlers, men­tally ill or not: If you save what you steal, ad­mit your wrong­do­ing, and then pay it all back, the gov­ern­ment will treat youworse than if you go ahead and blow the money.

That bit­ter irony will serve as a pow­er­ful deter­rent, all right – to oth­ers’ com­ing clean and mak­ing full amends. And that’s bad for ev­ery­one.

CHUCK LIDDY [email protected]­sob­server.com

The fa­ther of for­mer Wake County Regis­ter of Deeds Laura Rid­dick says her sen­tence was harsh.

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