A plea bargain in a racially-charged incident at Gibson’s Bakery was rejected Wednesday by Oberlin Municipal Court Judge Thomas Januzzi, causing the case against the main defendant to be dismissed.
Defendant Jonathan Aladin had agreed to plead guilty to attempted theft, a second-degree misdemeanor, in exchange for having a second-degree felony robbery charge against him dropped. With prosecutor Frank Carlson unwilling to pursue a robbery conviction, Januzzi dismissed the case.
Carlson said after the hearing that he is considering refiling the case in Lorain County Common Pleas Court and letting a grand jury decide on the charge.
Januzzi said he would agree to the plea bargain on a theft charge if a grand jury approved it.
The case was over a Nov. 10 incident at the West College Street bakery. Police said bakery employee Allyn Gibson was assaulted by Aladin, who allegedly tried to shoplift bottles of wine and fled the store. Aladin, a 19-year-old Oberlin College sophomore, was charged with robbery.
Fellow students Endia Lawrence and student Cecilia Whettstone, accused of punching and kicking Gibson across the street from the bakery where he chased Aladin, were charged with assault. The cases against Lawrence and Whettstone are pending.
The incident led to hundreds of racially-mixed students protesting outside Gibson’s for two days accusing the store of racially profiling black people such as Aladin. Counter-protests by mostly white people in support of Gibson’s occurred in response.
Police statistics show 36 of the 58 people charged with shoplifting at Gibson’s since 2011 were white. Nonetheless some students have boycotted the store since the incident and Oberlin College stopped purchases there on Nov. 14.
While Gibson and his father, David Gibson, agreed to the deal, Januzzi cited the boycott in refusing to accept it.
“A conclusion may be drawn that the (alleged) victims of the robbery have little choice but to assent in this proposal under penalty of a permanent economic sanction,” Januzzi said reading from a written statement. “While it is commendable that the Gibsons profess that they believe this to be in the best interests of the community, the court is concerned about the potential precedent setting of permitting a business owner under these circumstances to assent to such an agreement where a serious crime is alleged.”
Januzzi said he was uncertain whether a plea agreement would alleviate the bad blood the case has caused and said a trial might better serve the community by putting all the facts out. Regardless, Januzzi said public opinion wouldn’t influence his decision.
“A judge cannot consent to an agreement just to avoid public criticism, or placate or prefer one segment or another segment of society,” he said. “It would be a precarious and potentially dangerous precedent if a public protest would be a factor in the decision of a judge.”
Januzzi’s decision infuriated Carlson, who said he spent three weeks investigating the case. Carlson said there was no evidence Gibson racially profiled Aladin and there were conflicting accounts from witnesses as to whether Aladin or Allyn Gibson was the aggressor in the incident.
Carlson also noted Ohio law dictates a theft charge automatically turns into a robbery charge when a shoplifting suspect physically resists being detained and flees.
“A young man is caught doing something and he reacts in such a way that reflects his youth and poor judgement,” Carlson said. “That, I believe, is what happened here.”
Carlson said Januzzi’s ruling was an “unwarranted intrusion” on his prosecutorial discretion. He said a prosecutor has the right to consider the effects of a prosecution on the community in deciding whether to pursue a case.
Attorney Robert Beck, who represents Aladin, said the law was on Carlson’s side. “The prosecutor has discretion on what to prosecute, how to prosecute, and when to prosecute,” Beck said.
Beck said the timing of the incident also factored into the protests. It occurred a day after Republican Donald Trump, who ran an openly racist campaign that included slurs against Mexicans and retweets of white supremacists, was elected president. Trump’s remarks, and the fact that he won despite Democrat Hillary Clinton winning the popular vote by about 2.8 million votes, incensed many students at the ultra-liberal college.
Beck said while it is uncertain who was the aggressor in the incident, Aladin, who has no criminal record, regrets his actions. Beck said Aladin — who had agreed to meet for an hour with the Gibsons as part of the agreement — wants to move on.
“This is a man who is going to admit his culpability,” Beck said. “He wants to take this deal and be done with it.”
David Gibson, who wasn’t in court, said after the hearing that no racial profiling occurred in the incident. He wouldn’t say whether the boycott by the college and some students influenced he and his son to support the deal.
“I will say that the whole thing has created a lot of pressure on our business and our family,” said Gibson, who owns the bakery. “There’s no question we have lost a lot of business from Oberlin College.”
Evan Goodenow can be reached at 440-775-1611 or @GoodenowNews on Twitter.