Over the past week and a half, Dubuque has received attention and criticism from supporters of Chicago police officer Michael Mette. An Iowa District Court judge recently convicted him of assault causing serious injury after a 2005 altercation initiated by Jake Gothard, a highly intoxicated college student hosting a paid-admission beer party in Dubuque.
The off-duty officer, who was visiting the city with his brother, says he acted in self-defense and delivered a single blow. The prosecution said there was more to it than that, and Judge Monica Ackley agreed.
Under Iowa law, conviction on this charge mandates five years of prison time. Judge Ackley does not have power to reduce the sentence or put the defendant on probation.
Chicago Tribune columnist John Kass took up Mette's cause with columns the past two Sundays. The first focused on Mette's account of the incident and railed against Ackley's decision and the sentence. Kass suggested that local clout influenced the case.
Since it involved Iowa, the column included the predictable allusions to pigs and corn.
His second column reviewed reaction -- positive and negative -- to the initial column and reported that Mette's supporters are mobilizing.
Kass said of Mette, "He's a young patrol cop being squeezed, and he can't believe it, and I can't believe it." Unlike a news reporter, a columnist has more latitude in telling the tale and in expressing his or her opinion.
At the TH, the court judgment was ticketed for a routine Tri-State Page brief. That would have been a mistake. There is more to it than a few paragraphs under a headline, "Off-duty Chicago cop convicted."
We published a couple of stories on the case last week, with special attention to Kass' column, criticism coming Dubuque's way and comments from prosecutor Tim Gallagher.
Kass' second column stated, "The local Dubuque newspaper, the Telegraph Herald, is calling me a 'legendary muckraker' who is 'training his scorn' on Judge Ackley."
That's correct. We did.
"That's awfully flattering," Kass continued. "But I use a hoe in my garden, not a rake, and I can't be legendary, since I've only just turned a sprightly 51, a mere child in my own mind."
We weren't trying to flatter Kass, but we also were not using "muckraker" description in a perjorative sense. Muckrakers, a proud part of U.S. journalism history, investigate and expose corruption, injustice and fraud. These days, newsrooms don't have enough muckrakers to keep up with all the muck.
Another legendary muckraker was the late Chicago columnist Mike Royko. His successor in that slot at the Tribune was John Kass.
Anyway, I'm not a lawyer or a judge. Assigning or absolving guilt in an alcohol-fueled altercation is not easy. Kass managed to do that, and I suppose that talent is one reason why he works in Tribune Tower and I hang out at Eighth and Bluff.
But I do know many folks involved in law enforcement and the courts here, and I don't believe that they are "homers," blindly taking the side of the local subject over an out-of-towner.
A couple of local defense attorneys told me that one under-emphasized issue in all this is mandatory sentencing. Even Gallagher says there was no appetite for sending a cop to prison. But that is required under Iowa law.
Mette is scheduled to report to prison -- a more dangerous scenario than usual, given his occupation -- in a few months. He is expected to appeal the conviction. As the case plays out, expect more criticism of Dubuque and Iowa. And references to pigs and corn.