Bishop's Judge Finds That High-Profile Trial Brings Noise Aplenty

The Arizona Republic [Phoenix AZ]
April 11, 2004

Like a lot of us, the judge was fooled by opinion polls and thought there would be a hung jury.

"That would have completely taken me off the hook," Superior Court Judge Stephen Gerst said. "By the time the case was tried again there probably would have been another judge. That would have been OK with me."

But the jury in the criminal trial of Bishop Thomas O'Brien came back with a guilty verdict, and Judge Gerst's quiet professional life got suddenly noisy.

"When I realized that there were a limited number of files on cases of this type, I knew it was possible to do an analysis," he said. "Then once I saw how that was working out, I found that it could be made into a presentation."

At the sentencing of the bishop, Gerst spent about an hour describing his review of 99 other cases in which a defendant had left the scene of an accident. In the end he decided to give the bishop a deferred jail sentence, four years of probation and 1,000 hours of community service. If O'Brien follows the conditions of his probation, he won't spend any time behind bars.

"I didn't have any idea how it came off," Gerst said. "I walked off the bench and into a little hallway behind the courtroom, and there were no one there. It was silent."

Until the bombs went off. Talk radio hosts lashed out and public outcry followed. Maricopa County Attorney Rick Romley accused Gerst of giving O'Brien preferential treatment. The same Romley who had worked with Gerst many times before and never questioned his integrity. Gerst had helped Romley go after well-heeled men and women who didn't pay their child support. He had helped Romley get out of a jam caused by a plea bargain Romley made with former Arizona Diamondback pitcher Bobby Chouinard.

The ballplayer was accused of slapping his wife and putting a gun to her head. The deal allowed Chouinard to serve time in between playing ball, and Romley's critics said he was giving the pitcher preferential treatment.

During his 20 years on the bench, Gerst has sent an awful lot of bad guys to prison and sentenced several to death. When asked about Romley's accusations he would say only, "I don't believe the bishop is getting preferential treatment. He's getting a lot more (community service) hours than most get. And I don't believe it's particularly easy to sit next to people who are dying or very ill."

Of the case itself Gerst said, "There was good lawyering and the jury did well."

"How about you?" he was asked.

"I got lots of letters from people who said that my presentation changed their minds or that it helped them to understand the process better," he said. "Then there were those who watched it all the way through and said that every single word they heard sickened them."

Neither opinion has caused Gerst to second-guess his career choice.

"Private practice is a business," he said. "Judging is much more satisfying. This has been a wonderful career. Including the opportunity to do this (the bishop's) case. You have a chance not in every case but in a few - to really make a difference. "

Gerst has worn the robe long enough to have retired. He said that he stays on because he still believes that making a difference is possible. He's planning to stick around for a few years to work with young people, the one area of the justice system where he has yet to serve.

"What's the biggest lesson you've learned from the bishop's trial? I asked.

"Well," the judge said, pausing to gather his thoughts. "I learned that I can't wait to get to Juvenile Court."