Justice undone?

On May 8, Stuart Peterson and two other men robbed the F&J Food Mart on Biltmore Avenue at gunpoint. A witness to the gang-related heist described their vehicle to police, and all three were soon caught and charged with armed robbery. It was Peterson's first felony arrest.

A new leaf: Stuart Peterson, center, with fellow Asheville GO member Miguel Newsom (left) and co-director Dan Leroy during a recent sustainable agriculture field trip. Photo courtesy of Asheville GO

But those who know the 20-year-old Asheville resident report that in the ensuing months, something unusual happened: Peterson got his life straight.

"He had done better since his arrest than he had in years," his mother, Michelle Peterson, told Xpress. "We had some difficult times when he was younger — he didn't want to work; he wanted to run the streets. But since he'd gotten into trouble, he'd changed so much: how he handled situations, his maturity. He knew what he had done was wrong. He had completely turned his life around."

Peterson began seeing a therapist, entered a substance-abuse treatment program and started working with Asheville Green Opportunities, a nonprofit that places unemployed youth in green jobs. Those who worked alongside him say he became a model leader, contributing to various projects around the area.

"He was so excited about being an architect, about trying to build greener homes," his mother recalls, and he was planning to weatherize their own apartment.

Peterson also made presentations to juvenile offenders, urging them to stay away from the lifestyle he had once embraced.

"I was moved by the number of juveniles who indicated to me that they wanted to make better choices after listening to Stuart speak," Kimberly Simpkins, a juvenile-justice counselor who observed two of Peterson's presentations, wrote in a letter pleading for leniency in his case.

Co-workers, who note that Peterson was part of an "extended family" at Asheville GO, say the tales of his former life were hard to believe.

"I knew he'd done some bad stuff," GO member Kelvin Bonilla recalls. "But Stu was cool; he was this laid-back guy. I cannot see him going in and robbing someone, and then I heard that's what he had gotten in trouble for. Definitely he'd changed so much."

During Peterson's Nov. 19 trial, seven people testified to Superior Court Judge James Downs about the defendant's redemption. In addition to family members, they included his therapist; GO co-founder Dan Leroy; a juvenile whom Peterson had helped; and Detective Louis Tomasetti of the Asheville Police Department's Gang Suppression Unit.

But apparently, Judge Downs wasn't moved. Although he did rule that Peterson's "local support network" and acceptance of responsibility for his crime were mitigating factors, he still sent the young man to prison for 44 months.

"It was a really unexpected decision," says his mother, who now wears a black shirt proclaiming "Free Stuart Peterson!" While her son had accepted that he'd have to do time, she'd figured that his post-arrest efforts would be taken into account.

"We knew there was potential for him to get what he got, but we were thinking along the lines of a short prison sentence and a long probation. I just feel slighted by the court system. There are other cases where there's the exact same charges and the other person got nine months in jail [and] five years' probation. It seems like there's no equality at all."

She's now looking for a way to get the justice system to reopen the case and reconsider the ruling.

Mixed messages

One of the purposes of Asheville GO, notes Leroy, is to present alternatives to incarceration for those who want to change their lives; sentences such as the one dished out to Peterson, Leroy maintains, undermine that work.

"When we interviewed Stu, he so clearly recognized he'd made mistakes, but he wanted to do something different," remembers Leroy. "He really dug deep and overcame his own fears; he has tremendous leadership potential."

GO member Jamison Dickerson also feels the ruling sends the wrong message to those in Peterson's situation.

"You can pull up countless instances where someone's done something and hasn't really tried to right their wrongs," says Dickerson. "It sends a mixed message when you have someone who's worked so hard to change the outcome of their life, and it's like it didn't matter. When you're dealing with disadvantaged youth, the lesson doesn't hit until you learn the lesson or you've been around someone who's experienced it, who has that credibility. Stu is a very valuable person in that respect, because he's been [down] that road, and he's changed."

By coincidence, just after sentencing Peterson, Judge Downs heard the case of Charles Alexander Diez, the former Asheville firefighter who fired on cyclist Alan Simons in July. At the time, Simons was walking away from a confrontation started by Diez, who narrowly missed shooting the cyclist in the head. In court, Diez claimed it was a "warning shot."

After hearing testimony about Diez's good character from former colleagues, Downs suspended most of the defendant's 15- to 27-month sentence. He will spend four months in prison.

Leroy, meanwhile, feels Peterson's sentence doesn't do justice to the contribution he was making and could have continued to make. "There's a void in this community," says Leroy. "There was no one who had the life experience he had, with the sort of involvement in gang activity, that could speak to young people, that related to them. He had the potential to play a role that nobody else has yet played."

Peterson's former co-workers also fear what prison may do to him.

"If he stays for the duration of his sentence, he's going to be a different person," Dickerson predicts.

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24 thoughts on “Justice undone?

  1. cwaster

    I bet if he was a fireman or not black they’d have given him a slap on the wrist in my opinion. I personally question this Judge’s ethics.

  2. Jolene Mechanic

    Thank you Mr. Forbes and Mountain Xpress for printing this article. This is certainly a travesty of justice. During the past year, Mr. Peterson has repeatedly demonstrated to the community, not only his willingness, but his ability to become proactive and fundamentally change his life. He has done an enormous amount of community service work. He has worked hard for, and earned, a stellar reputation with people he has worked both for and with. This is a tragedy that could have been prevented but for the blatant miscarriage of justice. But then again, that seems to be the way of the justice system, at least according to Judge Downs. Is this not the very same judge that merely slapped the hand of the fireman that, unprovoked, pulled a gun and shot a man on a bicycle recently? From behind? Is this judge sending mixed messages? Or is he making a point that is all too frighteningly familiar.

  3. Tamara Serapio

    POOR POOR DECISION!!! While some sort of punishment is deserved, this is completely out of proportion. Oh, but apparently a firefighter can shoot someone in the head and get only 120 days… hmmm…. is our “diverse” Asheville practicing racism here?! Did our judge and jury view Stuart Peterson as disposable? A big part of GO is to employ and reform at-risk under-privileged young adults. And Peterson’s case is a text-book example of reform. What a sad sad day, Asheville. Time to wake up!! I can guarantee this unjust sentencing will not sit peacefully with many… What an ugly display of power, Judge… simply ugly.

  4. Austin

    In response to my own query, Judge Downs was reelected in 2006. Superior Judges are elected for 8 years, so we are halfway through this punks term.
    I will hound this guy at the next election and hopefully we can get someone in there who understands how society ought to work and who isn’t enamored by service members and who obviously has different sentencing for non blacks and for blacks. I would love for someone with reporting experience to start delving into this punks rulings.

  5. Austin

    In case anyone wants to express their opinions to Mr. Downs;
    James U. Downs, p.o. Box 879 Franklin North Carolina
    28744, phone number 524.6414
    This is his public information, not private.
    I can’t find anything linking him with Buncombe County, though he must have an office here.

  6. Austin

    Buncombe County Courthouse
    Superior Court Attn. Judge James Downs
    60 Court Plaza Asheville NC 28801

  7. JAD1

    Horribly unjust for Judge Downs to so harshly punish a young man who is trying to put his life on the right path and then turn around and slap a man on the wrist for assault with a weapon. Diversity in Asheville is very discriminating.

  8. Alan Ditmore

    44 months isn’t outragious for armed robbery, especially with parole etc. Even mitigated. The fireman case vs the LSD case were far bigger outrages. It’s a bit heavy but far short of outragious. The guy might just be very effective at playing for a reduced sentence.
    Prison conditions need improvement though.
    Judges are not equal and we need to remember that when the come up for election. People get different sentences for the same crime when they get different judges. Don’t forget this when you vote for judges.

  9. Mitchxout

    How old is Judge Downs? If he’s near retirement age he might not run for re-election anyway.
    In any case, he won’t live forever. Hopefully, his style of jurisprudence will fade away as well.

  10. Li'l Brunette

    None of you know the exact circumstances of this case, or any other case. Vote the judge out if you like, but remember what the previous commenter said: “Judges are not equal and we need to remember that when they come up for election.” And remember it also when you think it would be a good idea to point a gun at somebody and take their money, because you might just end up with a judge who takes a dim view of that kind of thing, maybe even a harsher view than this judge did. Until you’ve looked down the barrel of a gun held by some stranger who’s robbing you — white, black or ski-masked — I’d keep my mouth shut if all I knew about a case was what I read in an article. Just my opinion.

  11. Peter Brezny

    I really can’t believe this.

    White guy, Shoots at another guy walking away from him.
    Sentence:120 days

    Black guy, armed robbery (without actually shooting at someone)
    Sentence:4 years

    Society:0
    Bigots:1

    We can’t wait another 4 years for Judge Downs re-election.

    I hope both of these get appealed, and that somehow this judge is thrown off the bench.

  12. Did Stuart Peterson actually shoot his gun at somebody’s head, because if he did he would have probably gotten a lighter sentence.

    Down with Judge Downs, if he can be elected he can be unseated.

  13. entopticon

    Judge James Downs is an embarrassment to humanity. His bigotry is absolutely unconscionable.

    In the case of Stewart Peterson, he took personal responsibility for his crime, and was able to demonstrate positive steps towards rehabilitation, yet Downs showed no mercy.

    In the case of Diez, he refused to take personal responsibility for his crime, and outright lied to the court, yet Downs suspended nearly all of his sentence, because of his “good” character. Diez had the gall to lie right to the judge’s face, telling him that the shot, which hit his victim in the bicycle helmet that he was wearing, was a warning shot. The victim was walking away from Diez. By definition, warning shots are for people who are advancing, not retreating. And by definition, a warning shot is pointed away from the attacker, not at him.

    There is never an occasion where not taking personal responsibility is a sign of character, and there is never an occasion where lying to a judge is a sign of character.

    Robbing a store at gunpoint is a very serious crime, and it deserves to be punished. That said, anyone in their right mind would far rather be robbed at gunpoint than to have some lunatic shoot a bullet a half an inch from their head, and the punishment should fit accordingly.

    Unfortunately, this travesty of disproportionate punishment for black people is hardly an isolated incident. There are far too many despicably bigoted, unconscionably unethical people like James Downs in America.

  14. chalkbox

    I am sorry I did not mean to post that last comment, I was going to say “I can’t say that I am outraged by a harsh sentence for armed robbery, but I am outraged by a four month sentence for a missed shot to the head. What if the young black man shot at the white male on his bike with the kid on the back and the white firefighter held up the gas station? What do think the sentences would be?”

  15. Spanker McJohnson

    The article doesn’t give a lot of detail but if he was convicted of armed robbery, the structured sentencing for that Class D felony is 38-51 months of active prison time with someone with no priors and exemplary character.

    The intent of the law is to require judges to sentence armed robbers to significant prison terms.

    The other crime being compared was a Class E felony which carries no mandatory prison requirement at all.

  16. travelah

    Help me understand how the ragheads can be outraged that a man who shot at another man received what was clearly a lenient sentence yet cry outrage and injustie when a man convicted of armed robbery only gets 44 months?

    What is the appropriate sentence for armed robbery and does it matter if it is you being robbed or somebody else?

  17. entopticon

    Raghead!?!?!?!?!?

    Jon, something needs to be done about this. It is time for traveliar to go once and for all. Like many people, I stopped pulling punches with my language because I wasn’t going to practice restraint while traveliar used abusive language (specifically “moron”) but this truly is over the top. “Raghead” is an extremely offensive, and totally unacceptable term, and this is hardly traveliar’s first such offense.

    What the hell is wrong with you, traveliar? If that is not grounds for permanently blocking your bigoted bile, I don’t know what is.

    And to answer your question, you unconscionable bigot, sane people are outraged by the disparity of a black man getting 11 times the sentence for a lesser crime! It is particularly heinous because Diez refused to even take responsibility for his crime, claiming that he fired a “warning shot.” Warning shots are certainly not for people who are walking away, and they sure as hell aren’t aimed at someone’s head. Conversely, Stuart Peterson has taken many steps towards positive rehabilitation, which several people in the community attested to.

    It is no fun to be robbed, but no one in their right mind would rather have a bullet shot at their head, grazing the helmet they were wearing and causing them physical injury, than to be robbed. To serve one 11th the time for a significantly worse crime is an outrage, and it is blatant bigotry.

  18. Spanker McJohnson

    Again under NC law, armed robbery is a GREATER crime than assault with deadly weapon with intent to kill but without the infliction of serious bodily injury.

  19. entopticon

    Any reasonable person can see that 4 months for shooting at an innocent man’s head in front of his 3 year old child as he is walking away is an unconscionable miscarriage of justice. James Downs’ hands most certainly were not tied by the law. Quite to the contrary, he suspended most of Diez’s sentence, even though Diez refused to even take responsibility for what he had done. Apparently some good old boys testified to Diez’s character, and that is all Downs needed.

    When it came to Peterson, Downs had discretion too, but all of a sudden he didn’t have any mercy any more. As opposed to Diez, Peterson took responsibility for his crime, and took great steps to rehabilitate himself. Peterson had compelling character witnesses as well, but they weren’t good old boys.

    If you seriously think that had to do with anything other than the color of Peterson’s skin, you are deluding yourself.

  20. Spanker McJohnson

    Even minimal research would demonstrate that the Judge imposed a very minimal sentence for armed robbery under the sentencing table by any logic.

    A Class D felony requires incarceration from 38 to 80 months for a first time offender.

    Class E felonies for a first time offense don’t require incarceration at all. The fact is, the judge could have imposed a substantially lower sentence on Diez than he did within the structured sentencing rules.

    The system is very well documented on line.

  21. entopticon

    The fact is, Judge Downs could have imposed a much longer and more appropriate sentence for Diez. If Diez had been a black man that shot at his mom while she walked away, Downs would have thrown the book at him. And f Peterson was a conservative white guy, Downs would have suddenly discovered that amazing mercy that he found for Diez.

  22. Spanker McJohnson

    The NC legislature has determined that a Class E felon (committing assault with a deadly weapon with intent to kill) with no priors and certain defined mitigating factors need not be incarcerated for a day and may be sentenced to as little as 15 months of intermediate sanction. The judge gave Diez considerably more than the structured minimum sentencing requires.

    That is simple, well documented fact.

    For a middle age homeowner with a mortgage and car payments and no prior offenses to be incarcerated for four months, lose his long held job, his reputation, pay restitution and spend a couple more years under supervision is hardly a negligible punishment and by every objective standard he is highly unlikely to re-offend, a key factor in sentencing.

    The same legislature determined that an Class D armed robber with no priors requires a minimum of 38 months incarceration for even the most upstanding community member. Not suggests, not recommends…requires. Read the statute.

    There is no doubt the judge was impressed by Peterson’s brief post arrest metamorphosis. The judge was required to document those factors in writing to justify assigning punishment in the mitigated category.

    ..

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