EDITORIAL: Concept of blind justice takes a beating in Las Vegas

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Two recent Southern Nevada criminal cases highlight the stark and unfortunate reality of how juice and cash do the talking in the local legal system. Is it any wonder that criminal justice reform has become a hot political topic?

In July, former Henderson Constable Earl Mitchell walked out of court a free man after being indicted late last year on four felony theft charges stemming from the misappropriation of more than $80,000 from his office account.

He became the subject of a police investigation after the Review-Journal reported that Mitchell had essentially used money generated by his office — which serves eviction notices and other legal papers — as a personal slush fund to cover video poker sprees. Among other transgressions, Mitchell made ATM withdrawals at bars and casinos and wrote himself checks from an account intended to pay his deputies.

A Metro probe concluded he “used $82,000 of county funds for personal use by inflating pay and expenses for deputies and pocketing the difference,” the RJ’s Arthur Kane reported. A prosecutor told the judge that he stopped only after “the media made the matter public.”

Mitchell’s behavior was even more egregious given his position of public trust. As an elected constable, Mitchell had an obligation to the people of Southern Nevada to conduct himself with integrity and to respect the laws he swore to uphold. Instead he willfully abused his position to enrich himself.

Mitchell’s transgressions cried out for jail time. Instead, Clark County District Attorney Steve Wolfson allowed him to take an Alford plea — which involves no admission of guilt but an acknowledgment the state could prove its case — on a gross misdemeanor with restitution. In other words, Mitchell pays back the money he stole from the taxpayers and that’s it — no time behind bars, no probation, nothing.

“It’s a fair resolution,” Mr. Wolfson said, “because he will have a gross misdemeanor for theft or fraud on his record for a number of years.”

Sure it is. Imagine gang members had broken into the Henderson constable’s office and made off with $80,000 stored in a safe. Think Mr. Wolfson would agree to let the perpetrators off with gross misdemeanors and no jail time simply to get the matter off his desk? Not a chance. The message Mr. Wolfson sent in this case is clear and unjust: If you’re a public official who runs afoul of the law, your connections will mitigate the consequences.

A week after the DA let Mitchell skate, Mr. Wolfson’s office accepted another high-profile plea deal in a drug case involving the California tech billionaire who has bankrolled the victims’ rights initiative known as Marsy’s Law in states across the country, including Nevada.

Henry Nicholas III and Ashley Fargo were arrested at a Strip hotel last summer and charged with felony drug possession. Court documents revealed that security guards at the Encore called police after finding various illegal substances — including heroin, meth and cocaine — in their room.

Had this same bust occurred on D Street, you can bet the accused drug traffickers would be pondering the next several years in the stir while rotting in a downtown cell awaiting trial. But Nicholas and Fargo had no such concerns. They simply pulled out their fat checkbooks and agreed to each donate $500,000 to a local drug treatment program. As long as they each also complete 250 hours of community service, the charges will evaporate. Gone! Poof!

Yes, a good argument can be made that clogging the prisons with nonviolent drug offenders isn’t the best use of public resources. But where’s that same leniency for the thousands of indigent and low-income drug defendants who cycle through the local justice system every year?

Those with means will always have an inherent advantage in the courts thanks to their ability to retain high-priced legal talent. There’s no practical way to change that. In addition, the pursuit of equal outcomes is a fool’s errand, given that the circumstances of each offense are unique.

But public confidence in the legal system depends on the concept of justice as impartial and objective, on the precept that nobody is above the law and that those with wealth, privilege or connections will be held accountable for their misdeeds regardless of their advantages. To the detriment of all, that noble ideal took a beating last month in Las Vegas.