Nebraska County Attorney’s Conviction Reversed for Theft from Pretrial Diversion Program
by David M. Reutter
The Nebraska Supreme Court has reversed the theft conviction of a county prosecutor who stole funds from a pretrial diversion program he created.
When John Blake Edwards took office as the county attorney for Keith County in January 2007, he started a pretrial diversion program that allowed for dismissal of charges once a defendant had completed program requirements such as “community service or alcohol education.”
The Board of County Commissioners approved the program, but required that it be self-funded. Fees and costs paid by offenders participating in the program were deposited into an account with Edwards as the only authorized signer. Between March 7, 2007 and August 13, 2008, he spent $7,257.11 from the account.
In April 2008, a county commissioner filed a complaint with the Attorney General’s office alleging misuse of public funds in connection with the pretrial diversion program. No action was taken by the Attorney General, and the county board later adopted a revised diversion program that required fees and costs to be deposited with the county commissioners. It did not address the funds in the previous program.
On January 20, 2009, Edwards wrote a $3,681.09 check from the previous diversion program’s account to the local trap team for junior and senior high school trapshooters. Edwards was affiliated with the trap team, and that same day the team issued him a check for $981.03 that indicated it was for “knives, shells 09 season reimb.” A state audit found that Edwards was paid $7,257.11 in excess of his salary and had made $18,989.04 worth of payments not authorized by the county board from the previous diversion program’s account.
He was charged on September 19, 2011 with multiple counts of theft, income tax evasion and filing a false income tax return. The income tax-related charges were dismissed, and at trial in August 2012 the jury found him not guilty of two theft charges related to $2,850 in checks written to his wife for work with the diversion program, but guilty of theft for the check to the trap team. He was sentenced to 90 days in jail, 1,200 hours of community service, nine months on house arrest, almost $3,700 in restitution and three years of probation. Edwards’ law license was suspended in September 2012.
On appeal, the Supreme Court of Nebraska held on August 2, 2013 that an improper jury instruction had implicated both the presumption of innocence and the state’s burden to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Accordingly, due to plain error regarding the jury instruction, Edwards’ conviction was reversed and the case remanded for a new trial. See: State v. Edwards, 286 Neb. 404, 837 N.W.2d 81 (Neb. 2013).
Following remand, Edwards entered into a plea agreement and was sentenced in February 2014 to thirty days in jail and a $500 fine.
Additional sources: www.granttribune.com, www.knopnews2.com, North Platte Bulletin, www.watchdog.org
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Related legal case
State v. Edwards
|Cite||286 Neb. 404, 837 N.W.2d 81 (Neb. 2013)|
|Level||State Supreme Court|