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Douglas County judge rejects plea deal for public safety

A drug dealer who testified in the May murder trial of Tiawain Johnson was sentenced this week to 15 years in prison — the same sentence his brother received on related charges — following a failed attempt to withdraw his guilty pleas.

In both cases, Judge Kelly Thimm imposed sentences significantly longer than joint recommendations made by the district attorney and defense attorneys.

Jerard Gregory Hampton, 33, of Chicago pleaded no contest in Douglas County Circuit Court on June 4 to delivering cocaine, possession with intent to deliver heroin and being a felon in possession of a firearm.

Last month, defense attorney Rick Gondik filed a motion to withdraw his client’s pleas on the heroin and firearm charges. During a hearing Monday, Gondik asked to withdraw all three no contest pleas.

Hampton testified Monday that he was not guilty of two of the charges, echoing his testimony during the murder trial. Gondik said his client pleaded to the three counts in anticipation of a five-year prison sentence followed by five years of extended supervision, part of a plea deal made with District Attorney Dan Blank in exchange for Hampton’s testimony during the trial.

Thimm denied the motion, saying he did not find Hampton’s statements conclusive. He told the court he believed that Hampton wanted to withdraw the pleas because his brother and fellow witness, 29-year-old Michael Earl Hawkins, received a much stiffer sentence than his plea deal.

Hawkins pleaded guilty May 30 to two counts of delivery of heroin and one count of delivery of cocaine. Seven additional felony drug charges were dismissed, but read in for sentencing.

Blank and Hawkins’ attorney, Donald Schwab, made a joint recommendation that Hawkins serve four years in prison and three years of extended supervision. Thimm sentenced him to three consecutive 10-year sentences, for a total of 15 years in prison and 15 years of extended supervision, based on the seriousness of the offenses and the high risk of recidivism.

Both Hampton and Hawkins testified at the Johnson trial, where a jury found Johnson not guilty of first-degree intentional homicide in the 2012 shooting death of 35-year-old Toriano Dawen Cooper. Blank offered both plea agreements hinging on their cooperation at trial.

At their respective plea hearings, Thimm cautioned the brothers that he would not be bound by the joint recommendation and that he could hand down a different sentence. Both indicated they understood prior to making their pleas.

Blank kept his end of the deal Monday, requesting a five-year prison sentence followed by five years of extended supervision for Hampton.

Gondik asked the court to accept the joint recommendation.

Thimm said he did not feel the recommendation was heavy enough, given the seriousness of the crime and the need to protect the public. He gave Hampton a sentence that mirrored his brother’s — three consecutive 10-year sentences for a total of 15 years in prison and 15 years of extended supervision.

The drug charges against Hampton and Hawkins stem from a series of monitored drug buys in Superior in 2012. Law enforcement officers executed a search warrant at the Superior residence where Hampton’s girlfriend lived. They seized about 25 grams of heroin, 63 grams of cocaine, 102 grams of crack cocaine, marijuana and a handgun, according to criminal complaints.

Hawkins and Hampton have been in custody at the Douglas County Jail for more than two years.