A Hennepin County district judge reversed course Monday, hours after she denied a defendant’s request to postpone his sentencing so he could undergo surgery Tuesday on his frostbitten hand.
Judge Regina Chu initially refused to grant a continuance to accommodate the medical procedure, said Levi W. Jorgensen’s wife, mother and attorney, who pleaded for leniency. They said doctors had recommended that before serving his prison term for robbery and other offenses, Jorgensen should receive the surgery to allow greater movement in what’s left of his amputated right thumb.
More than four hours after Chu sent Jorgensen to prison for five years, and after the Star Tribune contacted the Fourth District’s communications office requesting additional comments from Chu, the judge’s office contacted Jorgensen’s attorney, Hersch Izek.
Chu had “reconsidered” her decision, said an e-mail from her law clerk.
Deputies wheeled Jorgensen, 30, who is dependent on a wheelchair, back into the courtroom about 2:25 p.m. Izek bent down to deliver the news, which brought Jorgensen to tears as he cupped his face with his hands, which had all 10 fingers amputated earlier this year after he was stranded outside in subzero temperatures.
“After further reflection, the court has decided to grant the continuance request,” Chu said, adding that there had been seven previous continuances in the case. “The defendant’s wife spoke after I had already sentenced Mr. Jorgensen, and I was particularly moved by her comments.”
Izek and Jorgensen thanked the judge.
“Good luck with your surgery,” Chu said.
“Thank you so much,” Jorgensen said.
Chu ordered Jorgensen back in her courtroom on Dec. 2 to be sentenced for his guilty plea in four cases: two counts of first-degree aggravated robbery, fleeing a police officer, driving while intoxicated and damage to property.
Izek and Jorgensen’s wife, Elizabeth Johnson, welcomed the change of heart, but were also confused by the judge’s decisions both times Monday.
“Those reasons existed this morning,” Izek said of Jorgensen’s medical needs. “I don’t understand why [Chu] didn’t take care of it this morning after she heard from his wife.”
Chu first addressed Jorgensen’s sentencing shortly after 9 a.m. Monday. Izek, Johnson and Jorgensen’s mother, Amy McGregor, were in attendance, and asked that Chu postpone the sentencing so Jorgensen could undergo surgery at 8 a.m. Tuesday.
Izek provided medical documentation, and had previously contacted the judge and the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office about the surgery. One note from a doctor dated Sept. 9 recommended that Jorgensen be given two months for recovery to maximize his healing and rehabilitation.
Jorgensen had pleaded guilty in April 2018 and agreed to the prison term. He admitted to robbing a woman at an ATM on Lake Street in July 2017, robbing a Walgreens at knife point two days later and fleeing police while high on methamphetamine, among other crimes.
Johnson thought her statements Monday morning made no impact on Chu.
“[Chu] said at least two to three times … basically it was her oldest case on the books and this needed to be handled,” Johnson said of the judge’s posture in the morning. “I was blank. I was numb to all of that.”
Izek said Assistant Hennepin County Attorney Gretchen Gray-Larson also resisted postponing the sentencing.
County Attorney spokesman Chuck Laszewski said the office objected to the continuance because Jorgensen “has been evading sentencing” since his plea. Jorgensen withdrew his plea at his first sentencing date in June 2018, failed to appear at a new July hearing and said he couldn’t appear at a November hearing because he couldn’t walk due to health issues.
The prosecutor’s office said they uncovered a video of Jorgensen at a Vikings game that November “jumping up and down” with excitement.
“Some would suggest he has abused the criminal justice system,” Laszewski said. “We believe it is time for Mr. Jorgensen to face up to his responsibilities.”
The Minnesota Department of Corrections is also “perfectly capable” of meeting Jorgensen’s medical needs, the prosecutor’s office said.
Johnson and McGregor acknowledged that Jorgensen made bad decisions because of his drug addiction, but said that shouldn’t preclude him from receiving proper medical care, which they feared he wouldn’t receive in prison.
Jorgensen was out of custody awaiting sentencing when he was stranded earlier this year in subzero temperatures while waiting for a friend to pick him up, Johnson said. That resulted in frostbite on his hands and feet. While all of his fingers had to be almost completely amputated (he was already missing part of one pinkie finger), his feet recovered, his family said.
Jorgensen underwent surgery earlier this month on the remains of his left thumb, which “drastically” improved his ability to grip, Johnson said. Tuesday’s surgery will aim to do the same for his right thumb.
Chu’s new decision Monday afternoon added to Johnson’s concerns about a judge’s power.
“I’m just kind of speechless,” she said. “It should still be about the fact that a doctor recommended that he needed the surgery. It shouldn’t be about something I said.”