Criminals have been known to rage, or even weep, when their cases end up in federal court, a place known for stern prison sentences.
Yet recently, when lawyers asked one man whether he’d rather his case be handled by the federal system or Platte County Circuit Court, he blurted, “Federal!” — an answer that shows just how much local lawbreakers have grown to fear Platte County justice.
“I took it as a compliment,” said Platte County Prosecutor Eric Zahnd, whose office has, for decades, brandished a protect-the-citizens-first attitude against many types of crime.
Across the board, transgressions that might draw a wrist slap in Jackson County can prompt much worse north of the Missouri River. Forget big sticks. For decades, Northland judges and prosecutors have ruled with two-by-fours, especially if victims have been hurt or killed.
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Some defense lawyers say Platte County often lacks compassion for their clients. But law enforcers say they’re simply doing what the community expects: being tough on crime.
Look at Brian K. Krenzer. He received a 25-year prison term as a persistent offender for snatching a woman’s purse outside a Northland grocery store.
Then there’s Dane Johnson and Landon Prothro. They were sentenced to 43 and 28 years in prison for breaking into homes while the occupants attended funerals. They even stole from one homeowner while he attended his wife’s visitation.
And consider Pedro Guzman. He got 25 years for sucker-punching a 59-year-old grandmother in the face, breaking her jaw.
“If people commit a violent crime in Platte County, they can depend on punishment, not probation, depending on the facts,” said Judge Abe Shafer, who recently stepped down from the bench.
To be sure, comparing Jackson County with its Northland neighbors is difficult, given the vast differences between their rates of violent crime.
Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker suggested that the issues her prosecutors face are not the same as those confronted in Platte City and Liberty.
“Violence does not break out at the spelling bee,” Baker said. “So my witnesses don’t come from the spelling bee down to the courthouse to testify.”
Northland judges and prosecutors say their approach to crime agrees with the people they serve. Residents long have cited quality schools and the relatively low crime rate as why they live in the Northland.
“We don’t seem to have a whole lot of crime in our area,” said David Lewis, a longtime member and resident of the Chapel Hills Homes Association, which is on Missouri 9 and Northwest Winter Avenue. “Criminals know they need to stay out of the Northland.”
Kansas City officers who have worked on both sides of the Missouri River recognize the difference. For example, officers don’t bother sending Jackson County prosecutors some gun cases that could be tried in state court.
“You just send those through city court,” said Vince Cannon, a retired patrol division commander. “If you work them up north, you run them by the (county) prosecutor, and 75 percent of the time they are going to go ahead and file the case.”
Differences in sentencing philosophies between the counties can be glaring.
In May 2008, career criminal Michael Calvin stole electronic items from a Wal-Mart in Independence. Three weeks later, he stole two TVs worth about $700 from a Wal-Mart in Platte County.
His Jackson County sentence: 180 days with credit for time served while jailed awaiting trial.
His Platte County sentence: 13 years in prison.
“We believed a long sentence was justified given the defendant’s lengthy criminal history,” Zahnd said.
San S. Hean learned that lesson about 20 years ago.
In 1993, a Jackson County judge gave Hean two years’ probation for shooting a street gang member who previously had jumped him.
Two years later, Hean squeezed three shots from a semi-automatic pistol into the vehicle driven by a Park Hill High School student as students were leaving school. No one was injured. Hean, 19 at the time, admitted to the crime and received a 30-year sentence, which he is serving in a Missouri prison.
“I was shocked and angry (about the sentence), but there was nothing I could do. It was done,” said Hean, whose family settled in Kansas City in 1979 after escaping from Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge regime. He expects to be paroled in August 2015 but faces deportation.
“In Jackson County, they kind of understand the environment we are surrounded by every day,” he said. “In the prison system, you hear a lot of guys say, ‘Man, you don’t want to go up north.’ I wish I would’ve known that.”
Marco Roldan, Jackson County’s presiding judge, rejected the notion that his judges are somehow more “lenient.” The case volume has made judges in Kansas City and Independence adept at sorting defendants who are good probation risks from those they’ll send to prison.
“We’re more astute,” he said.
But defense lawyers said tough public expectations are sending too many people to prison for far too long.
“Part of the problem is they don’t want to be perceived as being soft on crime,” said Kevin Baldwin, a former Clay County assistant prosecutor who now represents defendants. “The prosecutors up here are fair, but they are just responding to their communities and the expectations of their communities.”
And defendants often learn that too late.
“There was a guy charged with fighting at the casino,” Baldwin said. “He bit one of the police officers. And when he actually discovered (in court) that he was in Clay County, he started to cry.”