Some question whether Brian Fitch got lenient treatment.
Two years before he allegedly shot and killed a Mendota Heights police officer, Brian Fitch Sr. stood charged with beating and threatening a man he suspected of having sex with his girlfriend.
Dakota County prosecutors, citing the 39-year-old career criminal’s lengthy record, warned that he was a “violent offender” and recommended that he be sent to prison for three years — the maximum sentence state guidelines allowed. That didn’t happen.
Instead, a judge in May 2013 sentenced Fitch, who had written him fervent letters saying that he was straightening out his life, to the 211 days he had spent in jail and ordered him into the Minnesota Adult and Teen Challenge residential drug-treatment program, beginning this past February.
In May, records show, Fitch was dismissed as “unsuccessful” and told to turn himself in to authorities. He never did.
Now, as Fitch faces first-degree murder charges in the shooting death of veteran officer Scott Patrick during a routine traffic stop Wednesday in West St. Paul, some law enforcement officials are questioning whether he was treated too leniently.
Dakota County Attorney James Backstrom said Friday that Judge Richard Spicer’s decision to send Fitch to drug treatment instead of the maximum allowed prison term was “not appropriate for violent criminals.”
Even before his 2012 criminal case, Fitch rarely landed in jail long for other offenses. Instead, his record reveals a string of plea deals, dismissed charges, treatment options and suspended prison sentences that would take effect only if he violated probation.
That emerging portrait has provoked frustration among some in law enforcement after officer Patrick’s killing, even as they acknowledge that hindsight in the justice system is 20-20 and that judges often face excruciating decisions in criminal cases.
“It was clear Fitch has a history of violence, hatred toward police officers, and was going to do anything, including murder, to avoid capture,” Ramsey County Attorney John Choi said Friday.
In an interview at his home Saturday, Spicer, a longtime Dakota County judge who retired July 7 but has been appointed to continue as a senior judge until June 2015, said he had “no specific recollection” of Fitch or his case. And because he is still a senior judge, Spicer is prohibited from commenting on pending cases.
But he did say that throughout his career, he has always given serious consideration to treatment options in cases where a convicted criminal has battled drug or alcohol addiction. He described the Minnesota Adult and Teen Challenge residential drug-treatment program as “a terrific program.”
“My personal philosophy was that for people who have drug addictions, prison doesn’t always work,” he said. “I search out alternatives, and if I think [treatment is] reasonable under the circumstances, I’ll consider that.”
Spicer said, “At the time, I felt society was better off with him being treated than with him being warehoused … and put back on the street untreated. Of course, if I knew then what I know now, I might have made a different decision.
“It’s a terrible tragedy. And of course, I feel awful. But at the time, I felt as though I was doing the right thing. … I grieve for the family. I’m sure they blame me.”
Hennepin County District Judge Kevin Burke has handled thousands of drug cases, especially as head of the county’s Drug Court. While declining to comment specifically on Fitch’s case, he said bail and furlough decisions are the most difficult a trial judge has to make. Over the past five years, pretrial risk assessment tools have become more effective, but nothing is perfect, he said.
Burke said he believes the Minnesota Adult and Teen Challenge program is very intensive and structured, which is why judges send offenders to it. “If you make it through … there is a good chance you can turn your life around,” he said.
Still, choosing a treatment option is always a risk, he said. He cited several things he said might prevent a similar tragedy in the future, including the growing use of pretrial risk assessments and improved monitoring of offenders on pretrial release.
“When somebody doesn’t show up for a hearing or the county loses track of an offender, we are subject to criticism that we are not good at finding them,” Burke said. “We just don’t have enough staff. And unless the offender is a high priority to find, there isn’t the urgency to go get them.”