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Justice Denied: A special report on domestic assault

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Emily Meeks recovering in hospital after brutal beating in 2016

(WEEK) -- A woman who was badly beaten feels she was victimized again when a judge let her abuser walk not once, but twice.

We've been digging deeper to find out how this happened, and discovered this seems to be part of a pattern in Tazewell County.

November 9th, 2016 started out as any other day for Emily Meeks and her then-boyfriend, Brian Washburn.

But, by the time the night was over, she'd look like this.

Emily Meeks recovering in hospital after brutal beating in 2016

Her nightmare began after they got into a fight inside a Pekin bar.

"He stole my keys off the bar, so I ran out after him. He had my keys and I didn’t want him to wreck my car because he was totally intoxicated," Meeks explains.

Because Washburn had locked the doors, she says climbed through a back hatch in her vehicle.

"As soon as I got into the car he started hitting me in the face."

She says the blows continued as he began to drive. Evidence photos would later show her blood splattered across the back seat, roof and windows.

Meeks say after Washburn tossed her cellphone out the window she hit the unlock button and jumped out of the moving car, trying to run to safety.

"I didn’t even know he was right behind me because he was running, and he (dragged) me, and the leaves were of course still going to be my hair because blood was everywhere," she recalls.

That's when she says he threw her back in the car, where the barrage of blows continued for their 57 mile drive from Pekin to Washburn's home in Kewanee.

She claims he held her captive there for three days.

Finally, she says he permitted her to go to the hospital if she promised to lie about how the injuries occurred.

When she arrived at OSF St. Francis Medical Center she was put on lockdown for protection. She'd stay there for nine days.

"He shattered my mandible, I had to have my retinas reattached, I’ve had two surgeries so far. He actually took a chunk out of my knee from where he bit me," she says, outlining her long list of injuries.

Pictures of Emily Meeks' injuries while at OSF St. Francis Medical Center

Washburn was later acquitted of kidnapping.. but a jury found him guilty of Aggravated Domestic Battery and Domestic Battery, both felonies.

The Tazewell County State's Attorney's office asked for the maximum punishment, up to 7 years.

Despite a previous domestic battery conviction and as assault conviction, Tazewell County Judge Michael Risinger gave him probation.

Brian Washburn, found guilty of Aggravated Domestic Battery and Domestic Battery

"It’s injustice. How can a man that has habitually beaten women for years and years continue to walk out as a free man?" Meeks reacted.

Transcripts show Risinger took into account that Washburn had successfully completed probation in previous cases and noted there hadn't been any disciplinary issues while in jail leading up to sentencing. Risinger also said he didn't believe Washburn has been planning on attacking his girlfriend that night.

But, Risinger also appeared to question his own decision, stating in court, "I might be making the wrong call here. You may make me look really stupid, and there will be some people here that will remind me of it, all right?"

10th Circuit Court Judge Michael Risinger, dressed up for final Tazewell County Drug Court Graduation Ceremony

As fate would have it, the judge would be reminded of his decision when Washburn appeared before him a second time less than a year later, after police arrested him for an alleged fight at a Kewanee bar.

Although captured on security cameras, Risinger couldn't consider the assault allegations because that case was still pending in Kewanee.

Altercation caught on camera at Kewanee Bar

However, Washburn had violated his probation by drinking and being in a bar. The prosecution again asked for prison time. Again, Risinger gave him probation, this time classified as high risk.

"The first time when he got probation, I mean it broke my heart because 12 jurors convicted him. You know, they said he was guilty. He was guilty. The second time and the judge let him walk? I was angry," Meeks shares.

And she wasn't the only one disappointed by the verdict.

"Without commenting on the judge's decisions, I will say we have to acknowledge that in the over 30 years I've been prosecuting in this county, I've never received this many negative comments from individuals that work within the law enforcement community and the community," admits Tazewell County State's Attorney Stewart (Stu) Umholtz.

Stu Umholtz, Tazewell County State's Attorney, commenting on the number of complaints his office received about the verdict in the Washburn case

We asked Judge Risinger to explain his verdict. However he said he couldn't comment directly on the case.

"I can only say judges take into account presentencing investigations and the sentencing statutes," Risinger shares.

Those can include if someone has a prior criminal history or if they're considered likely to re-offend.

Although one presentencing report said Washburn was at risk to reoffend, the guidelines are just that, guidelines. Ultimately, it's up to the judge.

We wanted to see if this was an isolated case.. so we looked at felony domestic battery convictions in 2018, looking at the three largest counties in Central Illinois.

93 percent of cases in Peoria County resulted in prison time. 92 percent of the cases in McLean County resulted in prison time as well.

But Tazewell County’s incarceration rate is less than half that, at 43 percent.

The judge in all those cases? Risinger.

*Numbers represent only felony domestic battery convictions in 2018 where defendants were sentenced to additional time behind bars, on top of credit for time served. See the full breakdown of numbers at the end of this article.

When we asked Judge Risinger if he thought he was too lax in domestic battery cases, he responded, "I mean for me, myself, I wouldn’t put myself in that category. But others, certainly they are entitled to their opinion."

Without commenting on Washburn's case or Risinger's record, the Executive Director for the Illinois Coalition Against Domestic Violence says failing to appropriately punish an offender hurts more than just the victim involved.

"Then that says to everybody in those communities, 'It’s not a big deal, we don’t care about you victim. And abuser, we’re not going to make you get in trouble for this because it’s really not that important,'" explains Vickie Smith.

Smith said she and other ICADV representatives would like to see more counseling for offenders, because incarceration is only part of the solution. They'd also like more judges to take part in training sessions that examine the myths and misconceptions of domestic violence.

Vickie Smith, Executive Director of ICADV

For Meeks, she believes the justice system failed her. But, despite her experiences, she says she'll continue to share her story in the hopes of encouraging more consistency in sentencing involving domestic abuse.

Meanwhile, she's mostly focused on healing and trying to move forward with her life.

"Does it still make me have flashbacks as I sit in the passenger seat? Yes. There’s a lot of things that trigger it, but you just have to get past it," she states.

As of January first, Judge Risinger was moved from Tazewell County to Peoria County Civil Court. We reached out to the Chief Judge to ask why he was moved and were told judges are routinely rotated. However they could not comment on whether they'd received any specific complaints about Judge Risinger.

As for Washburn, his trial on those allegations of assault in Henry County is still pending, where he is eligible for prison time if convicted.

Note: If you or someone you know is an abusive relationship, there is help available. You can call the Center for Prevention of Abuse at this number: 1-800-559-SAFE (7233.) Or visit their website here.

*Numbers used for our incarceration rates were taken from all 2018 felony domestic assault convictions in Peoria, McLean and Tazewell Counties, and only included time sentenced in addition to time already served.

  • In Peoria Co.: Out of 30 cases, 28 were sentenced to additional time behind bars ranging from 54 days to 6 years. 2 received probation.
  • In McLean Co.: Out of 39 cases, 36 got additional incarceration ranging from 8 days to 14 years. 3 were sentenced to probation only.
  • In Tazewell Co.: Out of 14 cases (started at 17 but 3 were dismissed,) 6 were sentenced to incarceration ranging from 70 days to 3 years. 8 cases were given probation only.

Caitlin Knute

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