A Kansas City police officer has died. His K-9 partner is dead. An unsuspecting pedestrian, sitting alone, is dead.
And Jackson County Attorney Jean Peters Baker, in a rare interview less than a week after the tragedy and arrest, heard the public outcry.
He heard people say:
To charge Jerron Lightfoot, 18, of Tonganoxie, with two counts of first-degree manslaughter is not enough. A cop’s death deserved better, maybe second-degree murder.
Late that night, February 15, it was Lightfoot who allegedly propelled his white Ford Fusion south along Benton Boulevard at over 85 miles per hour, crashing it into the driver’s side of Officer James Muhlbauer’s patrol car while was driving east along Truman Street.
The collision killed Muhlbauer, who at 42 was a 20-year police veteran, husband and father. He killed his K-9 partner, Champ. He killed Jesse Eckes, 52, a pedestrian, who died when skidding cars hit him as he sat on a concrete traffic light island.
Why, people have asked Baker, isn’t Lightfoot still in prison? Why, on Monday, was he released on $30,000 bail, which means he only had to pay $3,000?
There were so many questions from the public, fueled by grief and outrage over the loss, that Baker said he felt the public deserved a more expansive explanation.
“It’s such an outrage to the public,” Baker said of the deaths. “We live in an age where people get angry. It is comprensible. This is a very shocking thing that has happened in our community. It’s awful, in fact. It’s just awful.
But as a court official, he said, his obligation goes beyond what emotions alone can dictate.
“It’s not about how bad you feel,” Baker said, “how angry you are, how angry you could be. He’s about cold facts and the law, put together, and what he supports. It is not by choice, but by law”.
About the allegations: Some wonder why Lightfoot hasn’t been charged with second-degree murder. Baker said that, by law, it didn’t apply. To be accused of second-degree murder, as the law states, one must “Consciously cause the death of another person or, with the scope to cause serious bodily injury to another person, cause the death of another person. It could also be second degree if the individual was in the act of committing a felony, such as robbery or assault. These deaths did not occur in the act of robbery, assault or other crime. Nor did the driver knowingly want to cause the death.
“I basically had two choices,” Baker said. “Manslaughter in the first degree and manslaughter in the second degree. The difference is the intention.
A person commits involuntary manslaughter in the first degree if he “recklessly” causes the death of another person. They commit manslaughter in the second degree if they “culpably” cause the death of another person.
“Combine every possible fact,” Baker said, “to see where you should land.”
The prosecutor looks into alcohol use or drug use. In this situation, there was none.
Ultimately, Baker still went on the higher charge of first-degree involuntary manslaughter, holding that the speed Lightfoot allegedly traveled, 85 miles per hour or more, plus running a red light, as “reckless” .
“They are the highest charges I could raise,” he said.
Doesn’t the death of a police officer increase the charge somehow? In some situations the law allows it, Baker said, but not in this case unless, as the law states, “the victim is intentionally targeted as a law enforcement officer.” In this case, there seemed to be no such intention.
About the police dog: By law, intent matters again. Had Champ, the 3-year-old Dutch Shepherd, been killed or intentionally injured, Baker could have charged him with animal cruelty. “The dog can’t be a special victim here,” he said. “It has to be an intentional act. It requires that you knowingly attempt to kill or that you knowingly attempt to cause serious injury.
“It doesn’t detract from what you feel. You feel bad for this dog,” she said. “Of course you do. But the law sees it differently. It requires an awareness that you want to hurt this animal.
Released from prison on $30,000 bond: The bond “is headed by the Missouri Supreme Court. There is a bond program. We all follow that,” Baker said.
“I can make a bail recommendation, but that’s all I’m allowed to do. This requires me to establish a bond that falls within the scope suggested by the Missouri Supreme Court. I’m a lawyer, but I’m also a court official.”
The judge in this case, Baker said, went with a tie within Supreme Court guidelines. Those guidelines take into account a number of factors, such as whether the defendant might be at risk of absconding, which, in this case, Lightfoot was judged not to be. Another is whether the defendant is considered a danger to public safety, how old he is, the crime he is accused of, how cooperative he has been, community ties, whether the person has a criminal record.
“When I filed the charges, we were told he had no criminal record, not even a speeding ticket,” Peters Baker said.
So, on Monday, Lightfoot was released on $30,000 bail, of which he was required to post 10%, or $3,000.
Refusing Lightfoot’s bail and keeping him in jail wasn’t an option, Baker said.
“When you look at bail under the Supreme Court, it’s a ‘must,’ the defendant will be released,” he said. “It is assumed that you will be released from custody pending trial. We can overcome this presumption in the right cases.”
Baker said he spoke to both Muhlbauer’s and Eckes’ immediate families. They differ on an appropriate punishment should Lightfoot plead guilty or be found guilty. There are two dead men, one a police officer.
“We weigh these things,” Baker said. “What was the loss? See what has been lost and what has been taken from us. And it is a substantial loss. Now this is the argument of the state, that the loss is so great that there must be adequate punishment.”
A public visit for Muhlbauer is scheduled for Wednesday at the Municipal Auditorium, 301 West 13th Street. Community members are advised to arrive between 9:30 and 11:00. A memorial service will follow at 11.30am. The Kansas City Police Department plans to stream the service.