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Plea Deal Rejected in Ex-Illinois Judge’s Case

Jim Suhr
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Booking photo of former St. Clair County Circuit Judge Michael Cook of Belleville.

Booking photo of former St. Clair County Circuit Judge Michael Cook of Belleville.

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EAST ST. LOUIS, Ill. (AP) - A federal judge on Wednesday rejected a plea deal on heroin and gun charges for a former Illinois judge at the center of a courthouse drug scandal, saying the 18-month prison sentence wasn’t long enough.

Michael Cook, 43, who has been free on bond, pleaded guilty in November to a misdemeanor heroin-possession charge and a felony count of having firearms while being a user of controlled substances. Cook, who stepped down last May as a St. Clair County judge after being charged, admitted he has been a drug addict.

U.S. District Judge Joe Billy McDade said he would support a sentence that’s fair to Cook but also “fair to the public in terms of reassuring them the judiciary is in fine shape and the judiciary is in good hands and one that continues to warrant their respect.”

Cook’s defense attorney declined to go through with the sentencing. He was given three weeks to work out another deal with prosecutors. Cook also can ask for a jury trial. McDade did not indicate what length of prison time he had in mind.

McDade said in an order last month that Cook deserved a longer sentence, citing Cook’s prolonged drug use and his case’s sullying of public confidence in the legal system.

The gun count was punishable by up to 10 years in prison and the heroin charge by no more than a year of confinement.

Cook became an associate circuit judge in 2007 and a circuit judge in 2010. He resigned his St. Clair County Circuit Court judgeship in southwestern Illinois five days after being charged. His legal troubles surfaced after his friend Joe Christ, a former longtime St. Clair County prosecutor and newly sworn-in associate judge, died of a cocaine overdose last March while staying with Cook at the Cook family’s western Illinois hunting cabin.

Cook has not been charged in the death of Christ, a 49-year-old father of six.

Questions about Cook’s drug use have led to overturned convictions in two murder trials in which Cook was the judge. They occurred between Christ’s death and the time in which Cook was charged.

Prosecutors in those cases contended the convictions were the result of “overwhelming” evidence and that both defendants failed to cite specific examples of how Cook allegedly botched their trials.

In pleading guilty, Cook agreed to forfeit to the government a cache of firearms that McDade said included pistols, shotguns and rifles. McDade has told Cook he also may be required to pay costs related to his potential incarceration, which McDade said could be roughly $2,200 a month.

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