Liberal Wisconsin Supreme Court candidate Janet Protasiewicz in a debate against her conservative opponent on Tuesday defended her decisions to issue light sentences to some rapists and pedophiles while serving as a Milwaukee Circuit Court judge.
Protasiewicz said criticism of her sentencing record, including giving no jail time to a sex offender who went on to kill a woman, was "unfair" and argued that a "handful of cases have been cherry-picked and selected and twisted" by her competitor, former Wisconsin Supreme Court justice Dan Kelly.
"All I have heard is a sketch of a handful of cases that they thought they could use against me," said Protasiewicz, adding that she has sentenced thousands of people during her time on the bench.
But Kelly argued that the cases are "representative" of Protasiewicz’s record of "weak-on-crime sentencing."
"It’s the reasoning that goes behind those sentences that’s problematic," Kelly said.
The showdown on Tuesday between Protasiewicz and Kelly is the only scheduled debate of the high-stakes election, after the liberal candidate turned down other invitations. The April 4 race, which will decide the ideological breakdown of the swing state’s top court, could have national implications for the 2024 presidential elections and has already broken U.S. spending records for state judiciary campaigns.
Crime has been a major issue in the race, with the Kelly campaign and its allies slamming Protasiewicz over her sentencing history.
Kelly pressed Protasiewicz on several of her court decisions, including a case in which Protasiewicz gave no jail time to a man who sexually assaulted a 13-year-old child and posted a video of the attack on Facebook. She also released a man who raped a 15-year-old, citing COVID concerns, according to court records.
"There’s no way that COVID provides a ‘Get Out of Jail Free’ card for a man who raped a woman," said Kelly.
Protasiewicz called this an "outright lie," adding that there is "no way I would have said in any case, ‘You’re not going to prison, COVID.’"
Protasiewicz’s denial conflicts with court records. She told the defendant, Kenneth Wright, during his 2020 sentencing for sexual assault that, "But for COVID, I would be giving you some House of Correction time," according to records obtained by WISN conservative radio host Dan O’Donnell. "These are strange times, Mr. Wright. I’m not going to do that." After he was released, Wright went on to kill a woman in a drunk driving accident.
Kelly also cited a case in which Protasiewicz gave a 14-month prison sentence to a man who raped his own cousin while the victim was unconscious.
"You looked at him and you said you saw a good man," said Kelly. "And then you said you didn’t think he was a danger to society."
Protasiewicz also denied this on the debate stage, saying she "would like to see that transcript" and "that certainly doesn’t sound like anything I would do."
According to a transcript of the sentencing, Protasiewicz told the defendant "there’s a lot of good things about you." "Are you a danger to the public? I don't think so," she added. "I mean, I don’t think that you did anything other than engage in a crime of opportunity; and hopefully you’ve learned your lesson."