On October 31, 2009, Kenneth Scott Blake II attempted to drive home drunk from a party. Lost and in a stupor, he turned down the wrong way of a divided highway. Head on, he collided with a car in which my sister was a passenger. He killed her that night and injured the other two girls exactly one mile from where I grew up, where my sister lived with my mother. He had been warned of doing these things just like all kids are these days and he had a cell phone available with which to call for a ride. This was not an inevitable accident; this was a criminal action that could have been prevented. B-Felony Manslaughter is what it was according to the state you serve. Nearly two years later on August 26, 2011 you broke our hearts by suspending his manslaughter sentence as if Laura never even existed. In so doing you:
- Made Blake immediately eligible for parole after just two years in the county jail
- Revoked our status as victims per the Missouri Department of Corrections
- Removed our family’s right to speak at parole hearings
- Punished Blake for hurting the two surviving girls and made it so he is not spending time for killing my sister
- Removed the only sentence with any mandatory serve rules
- Blake will be released in November of 2013 after serving four years for assault
We have been at a complete loss to comprehend your leniency to Laura’s killer. To you, Blake is just a young man who made a mistake. To us he is a nightmare pariah, a destroyer of life itself and of Laura’s dreams. Although the state prosecutor recommended a face sentence of 25 years you only gave Blake six years for the lesser assault charges, making him immediately eligible for parole. Six years is very misleading since he will serve no more than four years before being released. Can you imagine what it’s like to be informed of something like a drunk killing your immediate family members on Halloween night or what it’s like to live with it subsequently? Could you ever conceive of the outrage one feels when a judge like you suspends the manslaughter sentence for the man who killed your 16-year-old sister or daughter allowing him to be immediately considered for parole? Do you know how paltry of a sentence four years is for killing a kid? You knew exactly what you were doing, we just do not know why.
You can deny it all you want but if this had been your relative, your decision would have been different. In fact, you could not convince me the outcome would be the same if Laura had been related to anyone noteworthy. What is worse than your actions themselves is the impunity with which you operate. You can literally do this to homicide victims all day long with no repercussions that I can think of. What a powerful man one becomes with the addition of a black robe. Your ascension to the bench, physically several feet higher than anyone else in your court, must place you in very thin air for you to fret for the well-being of a homicide offender while his victim’s mother cries right in front of you.
After your warped decision, the prosecutor and victim’s advocate kept reassuring us that the parole board would consider what we said when evaluating him for parole. I know they meant well but in reality only the two injured girls could go to Blake’s parole hearings. Laura’s family was made to stay home and be unconsidered because you suspended the sentence for killing her, removing our claim to any justice. I do not honestly know that it mattered considering Blake only has to serve four years even without parole. I have credit cards in my wallet that expire long after Blake will be set free. My family has spent countless hours dealing with this for the last two years and the whole system just keeps becoming more injurious. You are a roadblock to justice rather than a facilitator.
I had my doubts all along but it was the afternoon of Friday, March 11, 2011 that I became very uncertain that Missouri’s criminal justice system would take my sister’s killing seriously. I received a call from the prosecutor explaining that judge Michael Manners had recused himself, literally in the last business hour before the plea/sentencing of my sister’s killer. The reason: Michael Manners used to be a legal partner in my sister’s killer’s defense attorney’s firm. The fact that judges are routinely assigned cases in which they had close business partnerships with the defense is bad enough. That one would try and hold onto a case until the last hour is plain disgusting. This was just an omen of the terrible outcome that was coming. It’s how the law works; I don’t understand. I know; I know Charlie.
By March 11, 2011 we had already waited a year and a half for resolution and justice but Judge Michael Manner’s highly suspicious fumbling only caused us to wait another six months. I was slightly reassured and assumed that some semblance of justice would be carried out when I heard you, the presiding judge of the 16th circuit, Charles Atwell, would be keeping this case. We spent more hours updating our victim’s impact statements. Future tense was transitioned to present tense as Laura’s would-be prom, graduation, and other dates came and went while we waited. My family was blown away at your sympathy for Kenneth Scott Blake II the morning of Friday, August 26, 2011. To this day I shake with rage when I think about you and your concept of “justice.”
After so much preparation, anxiety, and writing, we showed up at the courthouse to have our only say through victims’ impact statements. We victims assembled on one side of the courtroom and the offender’s family on the other. Blake was charged with one count of involuntary manslaughter for killing Laura and two counts of assault for injuring the other two surviving girls who were in the car in which Laura was riding in the front passenger seat. The only charge that carried a mandatory sentence was the manslaughter charge for which offenders must serve 85% of the face sentence in Missouri. On this day Laura’s killer was to plead guilty and you were to decide his sentence as opposed to a jury. A total of 29 years would have been the maximum sentence of which the state prosecution was recommending 25. You made a point of claiming to have made no preliminary sentencing decisions beforehand.
The first thing we noted about you that gave us pause was that some lady interrupted court simply to let you know you had illegally parked. How nice is it that judges get a second-chance to park before their cars get towed? In response, you literally threw your keys to your personal clerk or whoever he was and uttered something along the lines of, “Move my car for me.” There was definitely no “please” in the statement you barked and no gratitude when the task had been completed. We had been there not even 15 minutes and I was already getting a bad feeling about the sentencing.
The first obvious impartiality we noticed was that we had prepared thoughtful, heart-felt, victims impact statements, which generated no immediate comment from you after their presentation. However, when Blake’s family stood up and made weak, unsupported claims that “Kenny deserved another chance” and “wasn’t known to be a drinker,” you congratulated each of them for their courage. One young lady even claimed Kenny was a good kid because he held her on his shoulders at a concert! At that point we felt as if Laura’s family were the aggressors, the antagonists, and the people who were there to defend the man that killed my sister were the impoverished, disenfranchised, and valiant protectors of innocence.
After a break, you came back and spent all of a half an hour building us up to let us down. Considering you claimed to not have arrived at a decision prior to that morning, it was odd that you already had developed a PowerPoint presentation outlining previous sentences for similar offences. In said PowerPoint you explained how you sentenced the wrong-way, drunk-driving, prior-DUI-convicted, Christmas-Day killer of an entire family (including an infant) to something like 15 years in prison. That was one of the three examples you gave as a baseline of “justice.” It made me sick and you should be ashamed of yourself for not passing down maximum sentences for an individual who destroyed an entire family on Christmas day. I could tell at that point you were a defender of the offender and not an upholder of justice. I immediately wondered if your legal experience prior to judge had been primarily as a defense attorney and my suspicions were confirmed after a little research later on. I suppose a man has to justify defending killers like Kenneth Scott Blake II in order to fall asleep at night and those justifications carry into your decisions as a judge. Somehow methinks that were a convicted DUI offender to drive down the wrong side of an interstate and kill you and your entire family, you would desire a harsher sentence than 15 years.
You held us captive and with no forum for rebuttal justifying what you were about to do. During that period you held that you had to consider the effect of a prison sentence on Mr. Blake. Funny that this came to mind without considering the effect of a head-on collision on Laura’s future or her family’s. You also made mention of Blake’s age without giving Laura credit for being over three years younger than her killer. Another injustice came as you decreed that you knew the victims did not believe Blake to be remorseful but that you disagreed.
You also addressed our concerns about witness reports of Blake attempting to restart his car after killing my sister. It was something along the lines of, “What we have here is a guy that didn’t ever drink and then drank a lot. He didn’t know what he was doing.” That’s quite an interesting take on things considering that day you just accepted a guilty plea from Blake for driving his car drunk down the wrong side of a highway and killing my 16-year-old sister. Does not the law of Missouri hold offenders accountable for what they do while drunk or can I just go swill some rum and show up at your house judge? If he was not prone to drinking then for what reason were we in your awful courtroom? Blake should have retained you as council as you did a better job than his own.
You specifically requested Blake’s educational level and gave him credit for achieving a high school diploma. At no point did you inquire as to why Blake graduated from an alternative school with the following mission, “The mission of Valley View High School is to develop personal, academic and social skills in students who are deemed to be at risk of dropping out of high school. These skills will enable students to become effective communicators, to become productive workers and citizens and to develop successful careers.” It’s nice you gave credit for Blake’s barely achieving a minimal, token, free, public education but did not consider the fact that he drove without insurance or that Laura had been taking classes for college credit for a while. I know, I know Chuck, he wasn’t charged with driving without insurance and judges don’t take victims’ education into consideration when sentencing their killers.
As you read the sentence I heard, “12 years for manslaughter” which made me initially hopeful since that charge carried a maximum of 15 years. We all slumped after hearing the word “suspended.” You literally suspended any sentence Blake might serve for manslaughter, the only charge related to his taking my sister’s innocent life. You gave concurrent 6-year sentences for assault, which carry no mandatory sentence rule. Blake’s reaction on his Facebook wall, depicted below, shows how serious he takes this sentence for “manslaughter.” Since Halloween, 2009, there is no admission on said wall of what he is in jail for. Clearly this is an offender who takes responsibility for what he did. I’ve also included his dad’s reaction to the parole rejection. I know being classless, terrible, people isn’t illegal, but I just want you to know the type of people you sided with. Again though, you knew exactly what you were doing.
We were left in disbelief that day. You said Blake had no priors so you had to give him the benefit of the doubt. That type of thinking is what permitted Clayton Dunlap to accrue 16 driving revoked charges before killing 12-year-old Damian Slayton while driving high as a kite. That went down in your circuit as well. Not only do people regularly kill others in preventable drunken accidents, but wrong-headed judges like you are there to look out for them, making sure they get a second chance to do this to a family if they have not yet done so. Sure there are plenty of educational programs like DARE, commercials, and billboards but in all actuality, these crimes are considered accidents. The state wishes to appear tough on drunk driving but that is far from the case. Missouri’s civil and criminal treatment of this type of thing is a joke. Many other states are the same way.
We were left crying, wondering if you have a drunk-driving son or daughter, wondering if something in our letters set you off, wondering how you could do this to us. Laura’s killing is but an accident to those like you that are supposed to apply the law to protect society and punish wrong. I know you are not a big enough man to step away from the shield of law and own your actions and I do not want an apology from you anyway; it would not do me any good. I am sure your retort would be that this is a common thing to do. Cite your references then. How many times do Missouri judges suspend manslaughter sentences like this. Furthermore, what is the ratio of suspended manslaughter sentences to reasonable 8, 10, 12, even 15 year manslaughter sentences in situations like this? All I want to do is to expose your derelict sentencing and if only a dozen people read this and think, “Wow, what a mother@%#$ of a judge!” then I will be content. Secondly, people are generally hesitant to call judges out so this will live on the internet forever, and if I can get enough other sites to link to me, maybe someday this page will be the top result when someone Googles “Judge Charles Atwell.”