Meet Judge Cupcake

Instead of a 12-year prison sentence, Judge James Campbell gave an attempted murderer a few months in the workhouse. And he can't understand why everyone's so upset about it.

Shortly after Jeffrey Douglas Law nearly strangled his estranged wife Erika to death, he called his mother. Telling her how he'd "really fucked up this time," Law said he had tried to kill his wife. He didn't want to face the 15-year prison sentence that would surely be his punishment, so he was about to kill himself.

If Law was serious about killing himself, Brooklyn Park police--called by Law's mother Susan Law--arrived before he could do it. And as it turned out, his guess of the number of years he would likely spend in prison for his crime was just about right. In Minnesota the recommended sentence for those found guilty of second-degree attempted murder is 12-1/2 years. And unless Law's attorney could prove there was a compelling reason for treating him otherwise, Law was almost certain to do the time.

Law pleaded guilty, and at his sentencing hearing on March 16, 2000, Ramsey County prosecutor Michael Hutchinson argued for an even harsher sentence, telling the court that it was obvious Jeffrey Law was a man who cared only for himself. When he tried to kill his wife the previous October, she had been holding their five-month-old son and another infant in her arms. As he choked Erika, she'd dropped the babies. They had lain unattended in the upstairs hallway. When Jeffrey realized he had not killed Erika, he left her barely conscious on the basement floor, and walked out without calling for help.

Tony Nelson

Law told the judge he was sorry for what he had done. He said he was a "selfish jerk" and a longtime "manipulator" who had done little to overcome his problems with drugs and alcohol. He was angry that his wife was planning to divorce him, he said, and he had intended to kill her.

But, he argued, he was a changed man. In the 18 weeks since the attack, Law told the court, he had been seeing a counselor. He had joined a men's group, stayed sober, and consistently attended AA meetings. He and his attorney urged the judge to disregard the guideline sentence and give Law a chance to put his shattered life back together outside of prison.

After Jeffrey Law told the court why he should not go to prison, Ramsey County District Court Judge James Campbell took a brief recess. When he returned, he began talking. "The most difficult decision that any judge has to make obviously relates to the personal freedom of people who stand in front of them," he said. "After a dozen years of doing this, I think people know that I don't believe a single day in jail longer than necessary is an appropriate sanction. And I'm certainly aware of that in this case."

What happened next can never be fully appreciated by anyone who wasn't actually in the courtroom that day, says Erika Law. Jeffrey Law's crime was serious, Campbell conceded, especially because it involved children. And Law, the judge continued, had better not be lying about being a reformed man. "Mr. Law," Campbell cautioned, "if what you are doing here today is in fact an act, then you should go to prison for the statutory maximum. That's the reality."

But, Campbell hastened to add, he believed the young man who stood before him was telling the truth. So, while he was going to sentence Law to the 20 years in prison that prosecutors had asked for, he wasn't actually going to send him to prison. Instead, Law would spend a year in the workhouse, and then be put on probation for 19 more years, on the condition that he attend family counseling and AA and submit to random drug testing.

"I do not believe, Jeffrey Law, that you are a threat to your wife," the judge said. "I am cautiously optimistic. I have seen a lot of failures in my life, having dealt with this. I have seen a lot of successes. And I prefer to call them miracles. I pray this is one of them."

Erika Law couldn't believe her ears. "I felt victimized all over again," Law recalls. "I felt like [Campbell] made me feel ashamed for the crime that was committed against me. It was clear that he didn't value me, or the safety of my son. Nor did he value women in general. When he said I have nothing to fear from my husband--I mean, he tried to kill me. Of course I have something to fear from him. [Campbell] needs to reevaluate who it is that he is protecting in his courtroom, because it isn't the victim."

 

Friends introduced Erika and Jeffrey in 1994. She was 25 and he was a year older. They liked each other immediately and soon moved in together. In October 1996 they got married and bought a house in Roseville. Six months later things started to fall apart. Jeffrey had been working steadily as a transportation broker, but he quit and began drifting from job to job. (Jeffrey Law could not be reached to comment for this story.)

"I thought what was going on was a mental-health issue, and I was willing to work that out," Erika Law says. She dragged her husband to counseling. Later she found out he was using drugs.

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