College, Gibson’s Resume Business As Trials Ensue
Following last semester’s arrest of College sophomore Elijah Aladin, which sparked intense protests in light of accusations of racial profiling, Aladin is once again facing felony charges and could be indicted by a Lorain County grand jury.
Aladin was arrested Nov. 11 following an alleged shoplifting incident and was charged with robbery, a felony charge, when the situation escalated to a physical altercation between him and employee Allyn Gibson. In the most recent development, Aladin was expected to receive a misdemeanor charge for pleading guilty to shoplifting after both his lawyer and City Prosecutor Frank Carlson agreed to drop the felony charges as part of a diversion program.
However, municipal court Judge Thomas Januzzi refused the plea deal Dec. 14, in effect sending Aladin’s case to the Lorain County prosecutor because only a grand jury can deal with felony cases.
Thee municipal court website lists several reasons for the rejection. One of them is the economic dependence Gibson’s has on the College, which Januzzi said could potentially pressure the store to accept the plea deal. According to the docket, Januzzi wrote that “the victims of the robbery have little choice but to assent in this proposal under penalty of a permanent economic sanction.”
Januzzi also said that he often accepts plea deals, but that in this case there was not enough evidence to accept the deal. The judge compared the scenario to a domestic violence case that hypothetically involves a spouse being pressured into accepting a misdemeanor charge to protect their partner from a felony charge.
“Think about the consequences of what you say now as the victim,” Januzzi said. “Let’s say you know that person very well and see them around, are you going to say ‘no’? Would you want to be that person? I wouldn’t. So we don’t let the victims drive the bus. Anybody can do the path of least resistance, a high schooler could do that, not us.”
For some, the rejected plea deal came as a shock. Creative Writing Professor Lynn Powell said she believes Januzzi was unfair to reject it.
“Diversion programs are extremely valuable and humane because they allow non-violent, first-time offenders to participate in a probationary period and then have their charges dismissed, which frees them to move forward in their lives,” Powell said.
Powell, a longtime Oberlin resident, wrote a book titled Framing Innocence, which follows a case of how town politics have previously had a tremendous in influence on judicial proceedings in Oberlin. Her book specifically explores a case that spiraled into unprecedented extremes when a respected Oberlin school bus driver was accused of taking pornographic pictures of her 8-year-old daughter.
Although Powell was disappointed with the judge’s ruling, she said she respected Carlson’s original decision to accept the dropped charges and that Januzzi was operating according to his own agenda.
“Judge Januzzi is not a member of the Oberlin community; Frank Carlson is,” Powell said. “I feel strongly that Carlson worked with the best interests of the whole community in mind. There is always a temptation, especially in complex situations, for self-righteousness to hijack the larger, more nuanced truth. To me, Judge Januzzi’s dismissal of a resolution agreed upon by all sides had that whiff of self-righteousness — the zealotry of an outsider trying to teach our community a lesson.”
It is uncommon for a judge to reject a mutually agreed upon plea deal, but Januzzi said it is important to review these deals and not uncritically accept them.
“It’s not unprecedented; we judges are required to review the plea deal, otherwise you don’t need a judge,” Januzzi said. “Most times the judge accepts it, but once in a while they have to say, ‘Nope, I don’t think that’s a good idea.’ But I’d say I’ve rejected a lot of plea bargains in my time here, more than I can think about.”
Januzzi was unsure how many plea deals he rejects per year, but said it is “more than a couple” and fewer than 100.
“When I got here and I started not accepting plea deals, I got that a little bit from people saying, ‘You can’t do that! Your docket is going to be so far behind,’” he said. “But then they begin to understand what is involved in these cases and we’re not overwhelmed. Our docket has come down over the years.”
Now that the case is in the hands of county prosecutor Dennis Will, he could make one of several decisions. He could go forward with the felony charge, drop all charges or agree to the misdemeanor charge, which would return the case back to Oberlin’s municipal court. According to Powell, who served on a Lorain grand jury several years ago, the prosecutor is given around six months to make a decision on the case.
Nine days after the rejection by Januzzi, President Marvin Krislov and administrators announced their plan to resume business with Gibson’s. The decision, announced by Krislov via email one week before the end of Winter Term, was determined, at least in part, so the College could make amends with Gibson’s to begin further discussions about the incident last semester.
“To the extent that the suspension of the bakery order was making it harder for parties to come to the table to begin this work together, I hope that resuming it may create conditions to move towards a restorative resolution,” wrote Meredith Raimondo, Dean of Students, in an email to the Review. “ Thus, I hope this is not an end of the discussion, but rather the beginning of our community’s engagement with each other.”
Raimondo added that she believes that donuts and other baked goods are the only products Oberlin buys from the store. While more meetings between the College and Gibson’s could be on the horizon, many students responded negatively to the decision made while students were on break. Student Senator and College junior Jesse Docter was upset by the quick decision, as well as the fact that Senate was not notified beforehand.
“We received no prior communication and were disappointed to see the decision made with limited student input,” Docter said. “At this point our statement of solidarity with the boycott still stands. We’re waiting for organizers to make the first move in light of the administration’s action and the charges that were dropped.”
Student senate held three evening sessions this week in Azariah’s Café, in which students had the opportunity to voice their opinions on the decision.
Gibson’s employees declined to comment on the College’s decision to resume business with the store when visited by the Review Tuesday afternoon. Storeowner David Gibson was unavailable for comment.
College administrators did not specify what their plans are for working with Gibson’s going forward, but did say they have been closely monitoring the legal situations involving Aladin and College sophomores Endia Lawrence and Cecelia Whettstone.
Whettstone and Lawrence, who both received assault misdemeanor charges, had their case pushed back to Feb. 22 following a municipal court hearing Wednesday in Oberlin. Krislov said in an email to the Review that the College would “continue to closely monitor legal developments.” Senior administration officials also said College funds have not been allocated to pay for the students’ defense.