In October, a News & Observer editorial endorsing Democratic Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman asserted that Freeman had agreed to “a relatively light sentence” in the embezzlement case of my daughter, former Wake County Register of Deeds Laura M. Riddick.
The newspaper was hardly alone in that assessment, but the common assumption is wrong. The truth is the opposite -- and it’s time to respond to mistaken claims of “a relatively light sentence.”
Relative to what, exactly? Not compared to other embezzlers. Not as to other public officials across North Carolina, either. Not even other public-figure embezzlers in Wake County.
Laura received the harshest sentence anywhere in North Carolina – five to seven years in a mixed-custody prison – for an embezzler who took responsibility, urged others to cooperate, and made full, immediate restitution of the amount alleged, although it was sharply disputed.
This despite Laura’s long and otherwise exemplary track record in office, including major technological advances, superior customer service, and rare political courage, as shown by her issuance of same-sex marriage licenses the same night a federal court order changed the law.
“I’ve been doing this job since 2003, and I don’t ever recall such a successful outcome, as far as the victims’ standpoint is concerned,” District Attorney Seth Edwards said of an $11 million insurance case he prosecuted, which resulted in zero prison time. “So often, there is not restitution, or a very small amount of return on their loss. … Most of the defendants that come to court have already spent the money.”
You can find N.C. embezzlers sentenced to more time than Laura – but none who made full, immediate restitution. Or have a bad heart and a circulatory disorder. Or were mentally ill.
At Laura’s sentencing, Freeman dismissed Laura’s expert psychological report, which is in the court record. Instead, Freeman accused Laura of greed, which is false. Laura did not need the money, and she did not live beyond her family’s fortunate means. Instead, she secretly banked what she stole.
No one can excuse Laura’s crime, nor deny that she deserved punishment. But there is a tragic explanation for Laura’s offense, and it centers on her deep, lifelong, irrational anxiety disorder associated with money, the sad legacy of her difficult childhood and repeated sexual abuse.
Freeman knows full well about the devastation such “adverse childhood experiences” can cause, and how they often lead to criminal offenses. After all, Freeman herself published an article about the connection between them in the March 2018 issue of the North Carolina Medical Journal.
“Most criminal justice system outcomes historically have focused on the crime while often overlooking the root cause of the criminal behavior,” Freeman wrote. “…Early studies suggest a causal link between [childhood trauma] and behavior that leads to criminal charges later in life.”
If only Freeman had taken that reality into account in Laura’s well-documented case. Meanwhile, we await the results of a State Bar investigation into the Raleigh lawyer who sexually harassed and stalked Laura for months, adding to her distress – and got away with it.
For years, as Laura’s mental condition worsened, her mother and husband repeatedly implored her to get psychiatric help. She refused, fearful of the public stigma surrounding mental illness. But Laura never told anyone in her family, including her husband, that she was stealing money, as she stated in open court .
The next time Wake County officials crow about their purported commitment to mental health awareness, remember this: they have imprisoned for up to seven years a mentally ill mother with two heart problems who made full restitution. That’s raw vengeance, not justice.
At her sentencing, Laura apologized publicly to Freeman, the judge, county commissioners, the customers and staff of the Registry, her family and friends, and the people of Wake County. In return for Laura’s contrition, substantial cooperation, and restitution, she got clobbered.
Once in prison, Laura was immediately singled out and thrown into solitary confinement, where she languished for almost a week – fed through a slot in the door of her tiny cell, handcuffed and shackled to use the shower, denied her heart drugs and other medication, and not allowed to phone home or even to call her lawyer – ostensibly for her protection.
Now, five months later and more than 20 pounds skinnier, Laura subsists in brutally mixed custody among baby killers, child abusers, armed robbers, and drug dealers, many with shorter sentences than hers. Even after making full restitution, which was extraordinary, as a public official Laura had to expect prison time – but surely not five to seven years.
What purpose other than retribution can such a long sentence serve? Laura has paid the money back and will never steal again. Her once-stellar career lies in ruins, her reputation destroyed. Her unsuspecting husband, who had nothing to do with her crime and learned about it only after she got caught, lost his job. How many pounds of flesh are enough for a nonviolent crime?
As public policy, Laura’s severe sentence inescapably sends the wrong message to other would-be embezzlers, mentally ill or not: If you save what you steal, admit your wrongdoing, and then pay it all back, the government will treat you worse than if you go ahead and blow the money.
That bitter irony will serve as a powerful deterrent, all right – to others’ coming clean and making full amends. And that’s bad for everyone.
Peter Marino, a retired benefits executive, lives in Bridgeville, Delaware.
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