A defense attorney said Omaha’s police union is playing “political football” with two district judges’ recent decisions to transfer shooting and stabbing cases to juvenile court.
Such “political pressure” is the reason that Douglas County Attorney Don Kleine has appealed the transfers, Omaha attorney James Martin Davis alleged, and has no place in the justice system.
Two weeks ago, Douglas County District Judge Duane Dougherty transferred to juvenile court the case of Nick Cisar, 17, who is accused in the brutal October 2018 stabbing of his ex-girlfriend at Omaha Burke High School. Last week, Douglas County District Judge Marlon Polk transferred to juvenile court the case of Esai Pinales, 16, who is accused of firing into an unmarked car with two Omaha police gang unit officers and an intern inside.
Omaha Police Officers Association President Anthony Conner has said his members are upset about the moves. The police union plans to launch an anti-retention campaign against judges on this issue.
“It sounds like a nasty knee-jerk reaction,” Davis said. “If you listen to the police union, every violent crime would be prosecuted in adult court instead of juvenile court.
“Don’s a great guy, but he’s a politician who runs every four years. There’s no question there’s pressure.”
Conner said Wednesday that Davis is not connected to reality and is minimizing the dangers of policing.
“The life of a police officer that was shot at is not political football,” Conner said. “As police officers, we advocate on behalf of victims and victims’ families. The families of these victims would like to see the offenders get the help they need but also the justice that should be served to them.”
Kleine said he is appealing not out of political pressure but because he thinks the judges made the wrong decisions. Cisar nearly killed his ex-girlfriend, Lacey Paige, Kleine noted.
Pinales also could have killed someone, Kleine said. Authorities have said Pinales and 18-year-old Keven Solorzano shot at the unmarked police car near 13th and Pine Streets in June. Two bullets hit the car, but no one was injured in the shooting.
Kleine said Pinales is a documented gang member and has had 12 felony charges filed against him stemming from several cases — the shooting, an assault at the Douglas County Youth Center, a robbery, a theft and a child pornography charge. Kleine said prosecutors also have several photos from social media that show Pinales shooting guns or posing with them.
“I don’t feel any political pressure,” Kleine said. “We’re appealing because these crimes were so serious, so egregious. It’s the right thing to do to ask the (higher) court to balance everything — public safety, what’s best for the community, what’s in the best interest of the juvenile. It’s our feeling that they’re better off being supervised, at a minimum, for five years (of adult probation) than one or two years under juvenile court.”
Under state law, juvenile court’s jurisdiction ceases at age 19. Pinales would have less than three years of court supervision left. Cisar would have less than 18 months.
In adult court, both juveniles would have faced dozens of years in prison — or five years of probation. Kleine’s point: Even if the district court judges thought the two juveniles didn’t belong in adult prison, they could have opted to put both on probation and, thus, monitored their behavior for five years.
Both cases fell under Nebraska law that says that judges “shall” transfer cases to juvenile court unless the prosecution proves they should be kept in adult court. Among a dozen factors to be considered are: the juveniles’ record and/or history of violence, their sophistication and maturity, the best interests of the juvenile and security of the public, whether the juvenile used a gun and the motivation for the offense.
Davis noted that Cisar had a personal and familial history of mental illness. Mental health experts for both the state and defense had recommended that Cisar be treated through juvenile court.
Davis said Cisar’s transfer is more clear-cut than the transfer of Tyler Pitzl, a 17-year-old who shot at a Douglas County sheriff’s deputy in September 2017. Judge Polk transferred that case — and the Nebraska Supreme Court upheld Polk’s decision.
“In juvenile court, you do what’s in the best interest of the child and see if you can save this person — see if you can rehabilitate them,” Davis said. “Someday, through juvenile court, he’ll be a whole person again. He’ll never be a whole person in district court because he could have gone to the penitentiary for a long time.”
In Pinales’ case, Polk did not offer his reasoning for the transfer in a written order. He did say he recommended that Pinales go to Canyon State Academy, a school for at-risk youth in Phoenix.
Pinales would have faced a maximum of 310 years in prison if the case were tried in Douglas County District Court.
Pinales also has pending cases tied to an unrelated robbery and shooting and an assault at the Douglas County Youth Center. Pinales previously admitted in Sarpy County Juvenile Court to theft by unlawful taking of more than $5,000, tampering with physical evidence and creating a visual depiction of sexually explicit conduct of a child. He was given nearly 3½ years of probation starting in March 2018.
His attorney, Jeffrey Leuschen, declined to comment about the specific case but said generally that juvenile court is meant to teach youths the consequences of their actions and help turn them into productive members of society.
“When it comes to tough-on-crime policies relating to juveniles that focus on punishment more than rehabilitation, they tend to do less to make our community safer and needlessly derail young lives,” he said.