A month ago, we provided an overview of the circumstances surrounding Douglas Tanner’s felony conviction in a St. Cloud court of law (“Can this man get justice in St. Cloud?” MSR, February 26). His sentencing now complete, we provide additional commentary from informed sources and Tanner himself, leaving it to our readers to answer that justice question for themselves.
St. Cloud State University (SCSU) student Douglas Tanner was sentenced March 12 to 180 days in jail for assault. He must serve half of his six-month sentence under house arrest, then the remaining 90 days in jail under work release.
The 28-year-old Tanner was charged with first-degree assault after a July 2007 off-campus incident involving himself, another SCSU student Fred Williams, and Anthony Kuebelbeck, a White male who suffered head injuries supposedly from several punches thrown by Williams, who last year pled guilty to fifth degree assault, a misdemeanor.
According to court documents, Williams later testified that Tanner threw the punch that caused Kuebelbeck’s injuries.
“I still don’t understand how I got charged and put in this situation,” Tanner told the MSR last week.
Before the sentencing hearing began, Tanner said his lawyer, Amy Chantry, “whispered in my ear that the judge agreed to just community service.” SCSU Professor Debra Leigh later testified on Tanner’s behalf, suggesting that community service would be a viable alternative for Tanner. She offered to supervise him as well.
“The judge said he respected that Tanner was involved in the community and has been doing things that were helpful for the community, but gave him 90 days anyway,” Leigh recalled.
Kuebelbeck’s mother also testified and asked the judge to send Tanner to jail, Leigh added.
Tanner testified as well: “I said that I was sorry that the incident happened [and] that the guy got hurt,” the SCSU student pointed out. “But I didn’t start it. Then the judge said that I didn’t have any remorse and didn’t own up to hitting [Kuebelbeck], and he gave me the whole 90 days.”
Now that the case has been adjudicated, several questions remain unanswered.
First, did Tanner get a full effort from his defense lawyer? Leigh, who paid Chantry $500, doesn’t think so. “Her defense was no defense,” she said bluntly. “As far as I know, she didn’t interview any of the witnesses. She filed what needed to be filed with the court, but there was no defense. She decided early on that this case was too great a risk to do anything other than accept the [guilty] plea.”
The MSR has left several messages on Chantry’s voice mail requesting comment, but she has never responded. She did not respond to yet another message left last week, and she avoided speaking to us about the case after meeting her in court in December when Tanner asked to withdraw his guilty plea.
Leigh opined that Chantry decided it was too costly to offer a better legal defense. “It was going to be expensive to argue because of the kind of expert witnesses that would be needed,” the SCSU professor continued. “He [Tanner] didn’t have the money, and I don’t have the money to pay for that. So she advised him to plea guilty.”
Secondly, what responsibility does Kuebelbeck, who was admittedly intoxicated, bear in the incident, which was sparked by racial comments he made toward Tanner and his friends? Kuebelbeck did “a lot of talking [back and forth]” prior to the incident, according to the victim’s friend, Jonathan Erpelding.
Third, to what extent is the Tanner case yet another example of a historical pattern noted by several observers: Whenever something occurs in St. Cloud that involves Blacks and Whites, the Blacks are almost immediately targeted as the guilty parties?
“It felt like the concerns generally in St. Cloud were reflected very much in this case,” said Council on Black Minnesotans (CBM) Executive Director Lester Collins, who attended Tanner’s sentencing hearing.
Fourth, since Williams admitted that he hit Kuebelbeck, why wasn’t he similarly charged with a felony along with Tanner? “That person,” said Leigh of Williams, “supposedly turned over Doug [and] was willing to testify and say that it was Doug that delivered the final blow, and it was the force of the [final] blow that caused the injuries.”
Fifth, the County’s case against Tanner appeared to be based on conflicting statements by both Williams and Vivion Bambara. “We really don’t know what really happened,” Collins said, adding that in his opinion the case should be thoroughly reviewed.
Leigh does sympathize with Kuebelbeck and his family. “As a mother, I recognize the pain the victim suffered, the family has suffered — especially his mother,” she noted. “But I don’t think someone sitting in jail is the solution.”
CBM Board Member Charity McCoy said that she spoke with Tanner in February. “It hardens my heart, because there is no reason when we have so many people in prime positions who have more expertise in [legal matters] that they could not have done more,” she pointed out.
“This [criminal justice] system in St. Cloud is in place for one reason, and that is for punishment,” Leigh strongly feels. “I do believe that the young men of color who come to school here are punished at a rate that calls the whole community to question the system and the way it is set up.”
“I feel had [Tanner] been a White or European young man, I think that he would have received community service, if that,” Collins added. He said the CBM plans to meet with the city’s mayor, police chief, and SCSU officials in the coming months to discuss the city’s racial issues.
“We want to turn a not good situation into a much better situation, not only for people like Doug, but for students who are there and ones who will be coming to St. Cloud,” said Collins.
Tanner must appear next month at a victim’s restitution hearing in which he plans to contend that the Kuebelbeck family is unfairly seeking money for their son. According to court papers, Kuebelbeck works at his parents’ businesses and originally asked for $30,000, but now is trying to settle for $10,000.
“The original plea deal that I took was that restitution would be paid jointly between me and Fred [Williams],” Tanner explained. “Now Fred doesn’t have to pay anything, [and] they are trying to make me pay everything. That is why I wanted to get out of my guilty plea. Now it is a new deal.”
He said he doesn’t expect Chantry to help him in this matter: “This is an argument I think I can make for myself, because she isn’t going to make any argument.”
McCoy believes that there can still be a bright future for Tanner, who is nearly a year away from getting his SCSU degree. “I did encourage him that he needs to go to law school,” she said. “He is a highly intelligent young man and very detail-oriented. I feel he would make a great lawyer. I sincerely hope that he pursues that.”
Looking back, Tanner says simply that if he could turn back the hands of time, “I’d stayed my butt at home that July Fourth.”
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.