In response to a lack of prosecution in sexual assault cases in recent years, St. Clair County State’s Attorney Brendan Kelly says he has worked to reverse the trend.
During his congressional campaign, Kelly has has touted his work to combat sexual assault and domestic violence. He has said that he helped create a St. Clair County Juvenile Justice Council and the Children’s Justice Division, worked on initiatives like a statewide sex assault task force, and helped start a county-wide special victims unit.
But now, the attributes Kelly has touted since early in his bid for congress are a target for Republican incumbent Mike Bost of Murphysboro and other conservative groups forcing the St. Clair County prosecutor to defend previous plea deals.
The race also includes Green Party candidate Randy Auxier.
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Bost and the Congressional Leadership Fund, a conservative super PAC, have each run ads pointing out cases where Kelly agreed to plea deals where domestic violence or sexual assault perpetrators only received probation.
The Bost campaign pointing out cases that did not receive the highest punishment is a strategy to turn a Kelly strength into a Kelly weakness, said John Shaw the director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University.
“Sometimes in modern campaigns, one of the tactics, one of the techniques is to kind of attack the opponent at what is perceived as his or her strengths,” Shaw said.
Shaw added the strategy is a well-recognized tactic.
“It seems when you have a race this close both of the candidates are going to look for any possible angle or comment or issue in which to both fire up their voters and to diminish your opponents voters’ enthusiasm,” Shaw said.
And with the race within the margin of error, according to recent polling, campaigns look for ways to go after their opponents’ records.
“Sometimes the critiques are fair and based on fact and others it’s a very creative and possibly not always honest interpretation of the opponent’s records.”
During a recent news conference defending Kelly’s record, a victim spoke about the work done by the St. Clair County State’s Attorney’s office.
Among those to defend Kelly’s record was Leticia Cross, a St. Clair County resident who is a domestic violence survivor.
“Two years ago, I was brutally attacked and held against my will,” Cross said. “The reason I’m here — the reason I was able to get justice, and the reason I’m willing to talk today — is because the state’s attorney always listened to us. He always put us, the survivors, first.”
Among the speakers at the news conference were women who previously worked in the St. Clair County State’s Attorney’s office with Kelly.
“Not only does Mike Bost’s false ad politicize the serious issue of assault, but he is making it harder for survivors to come forward and get the help that they so desperately need,” said Kristi Flint, a former prosecutor in the Special Victims Unit in St. Clair County.
Bost criticizes Kelly for offering plea deals
In a recent Bost ad, the Bost campaign cites cases where Kelly’s office agreed to plea deals with offenders including cases where men assaulted pregnant women, a man assaulted a woman with a hammer, and a case where a man knocked out a woman’s teeth.
A review of the cases cited in the ads showed that the perpetrators could have been sentenced to spend years in prison. Instead they pleaded guilty and were sentenced to probation.
Kelly defended his office’s handling of the cases.
“In the specific cases being cited in these ads, every single time we fought for the victim and we did what the victim asked,” Kelly said.
Kelly said his office always fought to put victims first.
“With these ads, with this politicization of this difficult issue, I’m afraid my opponent is now putting himself first,” Kelly said.
The Bost campaign stood by its criticisms of how Kelly handled the cases.
“Our hearts go out to any victim of domestic violence or sexual assault. However, Brendan Kelly’s record of allowing violent criminals off the hook is clear as day,” said Bost spokesman George O’Connor in a statement. “Time after time violent offenders were charged with crimes punishable by over a decade in prison, but Brendan Kelly let them walk with probation. These plea deals allow predators to go right back on the street and put women and children in our communities at risk.”
Bringing the cases to trial could inflict even more pain on a victim, Kelly said.
“Is it difficult work as a prosecutor? Absolutely,” Kelly said. “But it is nowhere as difficult for a prosecutor as it is for a victim who has endured that horrible trauma who has been victimized, who probably in many cases was afraid to come forward in the first place, made a brave decision, did that, and now is looking at the prospect of having to relive that trauma.”
Kelly’s campaign has touted the endorsements he has received from local law enforcement officials, including Swansea Police Chief Steve Johnson, Madison County Sheriff John Lakin and Kiwon Guyton, president of the St. Clair County Fraternal Order of Police, among others.
In one ad ran against Kelly, the Congressional Leadership Fund even has Nick Gailius speaking. Gailius is the former Fairview Heights police chief and is the GOP nominee for St. Clair County sheriff.
In the ad, Gailius refers to a case involving Todd E. Bramblett, who was sentenced to 3 1/2 years of probation after pleading guilty to two of three criminal sexual assault charges. Bramblett was accused of engaging in sexual acts with young girls in August 2013.
At the time, Kelly said the terms of the sentence were what the victim preferred “under the circumstances,” but did not elaborate.
The National Republican Congressional Committee had signaled early in the campaign it would go after Kelly on his prosecution record.
“Brendan Kelly is known for two things: saying he doesn’t support Nancy Pelosi but then taking her money, and allowing a pedophile who sexually assaulted two 14-year-old girls to walk free. That’s all voters need to know,” Maddie Anderson, a spokeswoman for the NRCC, said in a statement in response to Kelly’s recent news conference.