As Siemon departs, Aquilina continues her attacks

Judge calls for prosecutor who will 'follow the law'

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(This story has been updated to correct the last named Jessy Gregg, which was misspelled in an earlier version.)

WEDNESDAY, Nov. 23 — Minutes after Ingham County Prosecutor Carol Siemon announced her retirement, 30th Circuit Judge Rosemary Aquilina criticized her anew for not putting public safety first.

“I am looking forward to a prosecutor who will follow the law and protect public safety,”  Aquilina said in a telephone interview. “We need to get back to a system where prosecutors follow the law, where public safety is at the foremost of everyone’s mind as well as having a fair and impartial system of justice.”

Siemon will quit at the end of the year, halfway through her second term.

Aquilina has become more vocal about plea deals coming before her through the prosecutor’s office. This month in open court, she called on Siemon to resign after chastising a deal offered to a double murder suspect and refusing to accept it.

Aquilina will be one of the judges appointing Siemon’s replacement to serve until a special election can be held. Under Michigan law, the circuit court handles appointments to fill  vacancies in the county prosecutor and clerk posts. 

One potential candidate for the appointment is Siemon’s chief assistant prosecutor, Mike Cheltenham. Cheltenham has worked in the Ingham County Prosecutor’s Office since 1999, and prior to that he was a public defender in northern Michigan, according to a Facebook post on his appointment on the prosecutor’s page. He also taught at Thomas Cooley Law School and was a unit chief for a decade in the prosecutor’s office. He’s served as  chief assistant prosecutor since 2018. 

Siemon said in that post that Cheltenham would help bring about her vision of “improving services for victims, bringing effective changes to the criminal justice system and helping disrupt the cycle of trauma, crime and violence by community engagement and building trust.”

Ingham County Sheriff Scott Wrigglesworth has been at odds with Siemon for more than a year over her policy initiatives. He gathered a group of 20 law enforcement leaders to challenge two specific policies. He did not immediately respond to a request for comment. 

One of those policies directed her staff to deny warrant requests for possession of drugs, stolen property and illegal firearms during traffic stops initiated by police officers solely for minor, unrelated infractions like illegal window tints or broken tail lights.Siemon said cops have been known to use those low-level crimes — which she labels as “pretextual stops” — as reasons to pursue other charges unrelated to the initial stop. The policy calls those encounters “fishing expeditions” that have disproportionately targeted Black people. 

The other policy shift dictated that those arrested in Ingham County for crimes that involve guns will no longer be charged with a separate two-year felony count for possession of a firearm in commission of a crime — except in “the most extreme circumstances,” according to the policy. Like the first, this policy was also designed to reduce the racially disparate impact that felony firearm charges have had on Black people. The companion felony charge carries an additional minimum two-year prison stint. About 80% of those sentenced for it in Ingham County are Black.

Siemon said the shift will help curb inherent racial discrimination that exists within the criminal justice system while also allowing prosecutors to focus on the more severe criminal charges that usually coincide with that companion charge for using a firearm in commission of another crime.

East Lansing City Council Mayor Pro Tem Jessy Gregg praised Siemon’s work “during this time” of “unique challenges.”

“Prosecutor Siemon rightly points out both the call to address racial disparities in the way our laws are written and enforced and the coronavirus pandemic as two defining points in our current moment,” she said. “I hope that Prosecutor Siemon’s torch is taken up by someone who will continue to stand true to their convictions and help move our county and state into a safe, secure and equitable future.”

Lansing Police Chief Ellery Sosebee, who was one of 20 law enforcement leaders to oppose policy changes created by Siemon issued a statement , calling her a “dedicated and passionate servant to Ingham county for many years.” His statement did not reference past policy decisions differences. Lansing Mayor Andy, who has also criticized Siemon’s policies in the past, provided a generic statement wishing Siemon well. 

Street activist and harm reduction specialist Julia Miller, leader of Punks Who Lunch, got to know Siemon as the two interfaced in county work groups to address the opioid crisis. 

“She has been incredibly supportive of Punks Who Lunch and our harm reduction efforts,” Miller said by Facebook Messenger. “I hate to see her go, and I hope whoever replaces her is equally if not more supportive of the cause.”

Check back for more responses for community leaders throughout the day. 

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