EAST ST. LOUIS, Ill. – A disgraced Illinois judge at the center of a courthouse drug scandal that included a fellow jurist's cocaine death was sentenced Friday to two years in federal prison on heroin and weapons charges.
U.S. District Judge Joe Billy McDade also fined former St. Clair County Circuit Judge Michael Cook more than $75,583, which includes the U.S. government's nearly $65,600 expected tab of Cook's incarceration and his three years of post-prison supervised release.
Cook's attorney, Bill Locco, had suggested a six-month prison term, saying "he's already been dealt a tough hand." Steve Wigginton, southern Illinois' U.S. attorney, pressed for an 18-month term.
McDade last month rejected a deal between both sides, calling an agreed-upon prison term of 18 months insufficient. McDade gave Cook's attorneys and prosecutors until last week to either file an amended plea deal with a stiffer negotiated sentence recommendation or take the case to trial.
When no new deal was reached, Cook essentially put himself Friday at McDade's mercy in deciding the punishment, telling the judge in his remarks lasting less than a minute that "saying I'm sorry doesn't come close to cutting it."
"I've embarrassed the bench. I've embarrassed the bar, and I've hurt my family and those I love the most," Cook, 43, told McDade, calling Friday a day he had dreaded but also anticipated in hopes of moving on.
McDade, a soft-spoken judge assigned to the case, concluded the two-year sentence — four times the upper end of federal sentencing guidelines in such matters — was necessary. McDade suggested publicity about the "tragic" story of Cook's addiction to everything from heroin to cocaine and prescription medication while on the bench, and the fallout from his arrest last May, risked undermining public confidence in their judiciary.
"A court system cannot operate effectively without the respect of the people," McDade said. "When judges fall from grace, they should expect to fall a little harder than the rest."
Cook 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, an admitted addict, agreed then to forfeit to the government a cache of firearms that included pistols, shotguns and rifles.
Cook resigned last year after being charged, a little more than two months after the March 2013 cocaine-overdose death of fellow judge Joe Christ while the two were at the Cook family's hunting cabin some 70 miles north of St. Louis. Cook has not been charged in the death of Christ, a former longtime prosecutor and father of six.
Cook became an associate circuit judge in 2007 and a circuit judge in 2010. His legal troubles surfaced after the death of Christ, who had been newly sworn in as a judge when he died.
Questions about Cook's drug use have led to overturned convictions in two murder trials in which Cook was the judge between Christ's death and the time Cook was taken into custody. 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.
McDade called the overturned convictions a significant disruption of government function attributable to Cook, along with transferring Cook's docket of hundreds of cases to another judge after he was charged. McDade also noted that Christ's death from narcotics did not motivate Cook to stop using or to get treatment for his addiction. Cook was arrested while buying more heroin.
"To become beholden to anyone or anything to the extent it compromises his office is beyond the pale," McDade said.