There should be no dispute - Giles Charle and David Siller committed a crime when they took fruits and vegetables from Sweet Pea Produce.
The men had more than $500 and a car when they were arrested June 26. It was early enough in the evening that Safeway, City Market and any number of stores in Steamboat Springs were open. They had the means and access to purchase food supplies for their trip to the Rainbow Family of Living Light gathering in North Routt County.
They set in motion the chain of events that led to headlines across the country about the handling of their case.
Still, sentencing the men to six months in the Routt County Jail - at a cost of $42 per day, per individual to taxpayers - appears to be a punishment that doesn't fit the crime. We urge the District Attorney's Office to reconsider a more appropriate sentence, especially in light of evidence that indicates the men may have taken nothing more than trash from the market on Yampa Street.
District Attorney Bonnie Roesink, while standing behind Assistant DA Kerry St. James' handling of this incident, said Tuesday she will create a citizens' review committee to look at how her office handles various cases. We applaud that move. Perhaps the committee can start with this case.
St. James maintains that police and the store owners' statements on the night of the theft indicate that felony burglary was committed. He rightly notes the men had the option of refusing the plea agreement and taking the case to trial. He also notes the men could have opted to plead to a deferred felony, which would have meant only three months in jail and a clean record if they successfully completed two years of supervised probation.
Rather, St. James said, the men met with several attorneys and chose to plead guilty to a misdemeanor and serve six months in jail.
The problem is that the store's owners maintain the men never entered the locked retail portion of the store. At worst, the store owners said, the men took a bag of over-ripe fruit and vegetables from the store's trash area. The only value the food had was to pig farmers, to whom the store occasionally sells waste. This is consistent with what the men have said throughout the case.
The store owners said they told St. James they did not want him to pursue felony charges or send the men to jail. St. James said the store owners never told him, before prosecution, that they did not think the men entered the store. If they had, he said, he might have dismissed the case.
But in such cases, new information can never come too late. Given the store owners' current statements, the lack of value of the items taken and the disproportionate jail term the men received in comparison to more serious crimes, Roesink and St. James should amend the plea to a more appropriate and lesser sentence.
Reversing a plea agreement is not a step we recommend lightly. But in this case, it seems the most practical and sensible way to ensure justice is met.