In September, we reported on a father-and-son duo who attacked Benjamin Brainerd in Sterling earlier this year.
The father, James Velasquez, asked Brainerd whether he was gay. Brainerd said he was, and the two men beat him up, leaving him with thousands of dollars in medical bills.
Velasquez and his son, Nicholas, were charged with hate crimes and aggravated battery, both felonies.
This fall, they plea-bargained their charges down to misdemeanor battery and agreed to pay Brainerd’s medical costs.
Why did the state’s attorney sign off on the lesser charges? One of the reasons, Whiteside County Assistant State’s Attorney Brian Brim said, was because the office had several witnesses who claimed that the assault was not accurately represented by Brainerd.
As such, this newspaper sought records associated with the case. Through a Freedom of Information Act request to the Sterling Police Department, we got Brainerd’s statement to a police officer.
But the police didn’t have the statements from the Velasquezes or a man who was with them because the state’s attorney’s office handled those interviews.
Unfortunately, State’s Attorney Trish Joyce denied our FOIA request for the statements. She noted a recent court decision that stated the Freedom of Information Act doesn’t require a state’s attorney to make those documents public.
But neither does the law forbid her from releasing such records. It’s her choice.
Brainerd, the victim, asked Joyce whether he could see the other statements. He and an attorney friend then met with Joyce.
Joyce let him and his friend read what the other witnesses told the state’s attorney’s office. That information took up about a quarter of a page, Brainerd said.
But she would not allow them to have a copy. Why keep it secret?
I asked Joyce. Here is her emailed response in its entirety:
“My concern is meeting with victims, hearing their concerns, keeping them informed and explaining decision-making to them. In addition to focusing on the victim, I also consider privacy and safety issues of witnesses to crimes and the impact on future and pending investigations/cases when providing information about specific cases. This is true even when a case is concluded.”
Are prosecutors really that concerned for the privacy of the Velasquezes, two of the three witnesses? They pleaded guilty and agreed to pay Brainerd’s bills. As for the other witness, Joyce could have simply redacted his name.
Joyce’s assistant prosecutor made a statement, and we wanted to see documents to back it up. Now, it looks like the community will have to take the statement on faith.
Again, Joyce’s decision to keep the document secret was perfectly legal. But there’s a moral dimension to this. Should even the victim be kept out of the loop?
David Giuliani is a news editor for Sauk Valley Media. You can reach him at dgiuliani@saukvalley or 800-798-4085, ext. 525.