Sometimes, prosecutors and judges are most effective when they don’t lock people up and throw away the key.
Prosecutors often boast about high conviction rates. But as reporter Robert Herguth detailed in the Sunday Sun-Times, that’s not what happened — surprisingly — in the case of a man who burst into an airliner’s cockpit shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
The man, Edward A. “Ted” Coburn, 31, then a field support engineer for a division of Rockwell Automation, made news around the world when he charged into that cockpit just a month after the World Trade Center towers burned to the ground. Fighter jets scrambled to escort the jet Coburn was on to O’Hare Airport. It was the kind of case in which a prosecutor could make a lot of political hay by calling for the toughest possible penalty.
But Coburn wasn’t a terrorist. He suffered from mental illness, including bipolar disorder, and was convinced one of the pilots and some of the passengers were intent on downing the aircraft.
Even so, he was arrested, taken into custody and faced a lengthy prison sentence if he was convicted of assaulting and intimidating a flight crew.
Instead, a young federal prosecutor assigned to the case, John R. Lausch Jr., asked U.S. District Judge Charles P. Kocoras to find Coburn not guilty by reason of insanity. Kocoras agreed.
It was the right call by Lausch, who now is the U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Illinois.
Coburn’s father recalls that, at one court hearing, Lausch “came over to Ted and said, ‘I’m about your age, I realize it could have been me.’ ”
Instead of languishing in a prison cell, Coburn has gone on to rehabilitate himself and help those around him. He got treatment and joined a local National Alliance on Mental Illness board in Indiana, where he now lives, and for a time was its president.
He has trained police officers in crisis intervention. He and his parents have supported the Carriage House, a nonprofit community center in Fort Wayne. He has a new job at a factory and is married. He is a stepfather to six children.
He says he has never relapsed since he was released from custody.
It’s not always easy to make the right call in a case that’s in the headlines.
It’s good to see that in this one, the prosecutor and judge did just that.
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