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Messenger: Tale of two defendants highlights the gamble poor people take with justice system

Messenger: Tale of two defendants highlights the gamble poor people take with justice system

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Digital Slot Machines

Dave McCall of St. Louis plays a digital slot machine game in South Public Market on Wednesday, Nov. 6, 2019. An estimated 52 such machines, made by Torch Electronics, are in gas stations, restaurants and small grocery stores across the city. Photo by Troy Stolt, tstolt@post-dispatch.com

James T. Green was an entrepreneur.

In 2014, the 65-year-old wanted to start a convenience store. He bought chips and candy, and racks to put them on. They were all in his living room when police, acting on a tip, raided his home. Police believed he was operating a business without a license. When the police entered Green’s home, and shut down the illegal business they believed he was operating, they found some guns. Green had done some time several years back on possession of pot. He ended up being charged with gun crimes.

Several years ago, I wrote about Green’s run-in with the law. I think about him every time I read about Steve Miltenberger and his company, Torch Electronics.

Miltenberger is an entrepreneur. The Wildwood man owns a company that makes electronic games of chance that are placed in convenience stores.

Some law enforcement officials believe they are illegal gambling devices.

On Jan. 6, Linn County Prosecuting Attorney Shiante McMahon charged Torch Electronics with promoting gambling in the first degree, a felony.

The charge follows months of controversy, during which lawmakers and Missouri Gaming Commission officials have been debating what to do about the devices that Miltenberger’s paid lobbyists and spokesmen maintain are legal.

The juxtaposition between what happened to Green, and what isn’t happening to Miltenberger, says a lot about criminal justice in America.

Green is black and poor and lives in St. Louis.

Miltenberger is wealthy and white and lives in west St. Louis County.

He has donated thousands of dollars to the campaign of Gov. Mike Parson, and he employs as a lobbyist one of Parson’s most trusted longtime allies, Steve Tilley. For months, gaming officials and some lawmakers have accused Miltenberger and his company of breaking the law, but they’ve treated him with kid gloves.

Nobody raided his home or business and confiscated his possessions or searched for drugs or guns.

Nobody put him in jail on a bail he couldn’t afford.

Both of those things happened to Green.

After his arrest for operating a business without a license — an allegation that he wasn’t ultimately charged with — Green spent six months in jail because he couldn’t afford the $30,000 cash bail a judge set as a condition for his release. He was eventually charged with four counts of being a felon in possession of a gun, even though his uncle signed an affidavit saying the hunting rifles were his.

Green went to court and faced an all-white jury.

He was found guilty and sentenced to 60 years in jail.

Read that sentence again. Yes, 60 years.

His public defender, Julia Fogelberg, filed a damning motion after his sentence asking the judge to reconsider, pointing out the multiple injustices in Green’s case. Among those injustices is why he even did time in prison in the first place.

In 2006, Green had pleaded guilty in Cape Girardeau to possession of less than 35 grams of marijuana, a “crime” that is legal — or at least not prosecuted — in many places in the country these days. He was given a suspended imposition of sentence and placed on five years’ probation. Four years later, he still owed court costs that he said he couldn’t afford to pay. The judge called that a probation violation and sent him to prison.

The judge in Green’s gun case was embarrassed by Fogelberg’s motion outlining the multiple errors in the case. He reversed himself and set James T. Green free.

Of course, the damage to his life was already done. When I first met him, he was barely scraping by, having lost his home, his car, his big plans to operate a convenience store, because of his long and unjust stay in jail.

The criminal justice system dragged the entrepreneurial spirit right out of him.

Miltenberger has been operating the machines that the Linn County prosecutor believes are illegal longer than Green spent time behind bars in a case that never should have been filed.

At worst, the owner of Torch Electronics will pay a fine, if he’s ever found guilty. In the meantime, he’s spreading his money around, urging lawmakers to change the law so his video machines can operate with impunity, outside the state’s gambling laws that regulate their use and collect taxes that eventually flow to school children.

This is the intersection of criminal justice and politics in America.

If you’re poor, the house always wins.

Get Tony's e-newsletter: From City Hall to the Capitol, Pulitzer Prize-winning metro columnist Tony Messenger shines light on what public officials are doing, tells stories of the disaffected, and brings voice to the issues that matter.




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