Many of C.J. May’s former supporters have been receiving this letter and have asked (and begged and cajoled) me to comment on it. Normally I would let such blatant bunkum pass without comment, but just this once...
(The 2019 date appears to just be a typo—the letter was sent this year, as the content makes clear.)
Let’s dig in:
“Since becoming Dubuque County Attorney, I have won every criminal case I have prosecuted.”
That statement shows: (1) a tenuous relationship with the truth, (2) a misguided prosecutorial philosophy, and (3) a lack of leadership and accountability.
- Has C.J. May won every case he’s prosecuted? The only case he has taken to trial was State v. Ellison, a fatal shooting on Loras Boulevard in the summer of 2020. Ellison was tried for First-Degree Murder, but was convicted of Voluntary Manslaughter. Murder 1st carries an automatic life sentence without parole, Voluntary Manslaughter carries a 10-year prison sentence with eligibility for parole. Ellison could have been subject to an enhanced sentence due to the use of a firearm, but Mr. May neglected to submit that enhancement to the jury.
Mr. May’s only other forays into jury trials have been as second chair for other prosecutors.
What about cases that do not go to trial? The plea in State v. Hoffman, signed by Mr. May, provided that Hoffman would be sentenced to 25 years in prison and was supposed to bind the court. When the court did not follow that agreement and instead sentenced Hoffman to 40 years, Mr. May did not object or attempt to enforce the agreement. The case was then reversed on appeal and Hoffman was resentenced to the 25 years in the original agreement. Was that a win?
Mr. May has been responsible for a few other notable plea agreements, often involving probation and suspended sentences for gun crimes. Wins?
There's also the plea agreement in State v. Forsythe—that deserves a thorough discussion for another time. Preview: not a win for the State.
In State v. Hart, the defendant pled guilty to pimping and was sentenced to prison. After the prosecutor on that case left the office due to Mr. May's mismanagement, Hart’s co-defendant saw her case dismissed at Mr. May’s motion. Do you trust, with no explanation, that that was the right result?
- In truth, a “win” for the prosecution should not be judged on whether a defendant was convicted. The mission of the prosecutor is to pursue truth and justice. Truth comes through competently and professionally presenting evidence to a fact-finder, and justice through testing that evidence in trial.
Mr. May’s philosophy is to count as a “win” those cases where defendants face vastly reduced or no punishment as long as May avoids a “not guilty” verdict at trial. That is not winning—that is laziness, or cowardice. A County Attorney has to be willing to risk an adverse verdict if that is what it takes to administer justice.
- Leadership, as was drilled into me as an officer in the Army, requires taking responsibility for the actions of your subordinates. If we factor in all of the cases that the office has had since January 1, 2019, does Mr. May still have a perfect record? Or is he disclaiming that responsibility?
“…extensive improvements we have made in providing legal support to the county in all of its civil and administrative matters.”
A functional civil practice provides timely written opinions citing authority and giving clear recommendations. A County Attorney should build institutional capacity in the office so that no matter who is the elected County Attorney, the office can continue providing consistently good legal advice.
Instead, Mr. May's process for providing legal support to the county appears to be:
- Ask Mr. May for an opinion;
- Repeat step 1 until you get an answer or give up;
- Do whatever you want or get your own legal opinion.
“I inherited many challenges…”
He ran for the job! I’d bet that Mr. May’s successor will inherit even more challenges. Don’t blame others.
“The County Attorney’s Office is in a much stronger position now than it was in 2018.”
I joined the office in March 2018, so I was there for approximately 9 months before Mr. May took over. I observed many things that could have been improved (and even sent a list of suggestions to Mr. May after he was elected), but I never observed anything like this in a court order:
No one appeared on behalf of the State of Iowa, nor did the State file a resistance to Defendant’s motion.
At a scheduled hearing on a contested legal issue, no one bothered to show up and argue the State's position. That language was in an order filed by the court the day before Mr. May sent out his letter. Tell me how that is an improvement. Tell me how there is less “chaos” now than in 2018.
“…my opponents have been launching unethical character attacks designed to spread innuendo and doubt about my integrity.”
After that statement, Mr. May proceeds to lie about me “working in tandem” with Sam Wooden and planning to drop out of the race if he wins. Yes, why would anyone doubt Mr. May’s integrity…?
I’m running to win, and I expect the same from Sam Wooden and Scott Nelson. I do expect that the tenor of the race will change if Mr. May loses his primary. It would be a relief to focus on a positive vision for the office rather than the failures of the incumbent.
Part of being a prosecutor involves anticipating counter-arguments, so here are some -- if you think of more, I’ll gladly add to this list:
Hey buddy, you’ve lost cases too. I sure have. And I’ve learned more from one loss than all my wins combined. No one should expect a perfect record (because it’s impossible), but we should expect prosecutors to pursue justice rather than avoid embarrassment.
You've also signed a lot of pleas! Yes--since I joined the office four years ago, I've handled something like 1200 cases. Along with 38 that have gone to trial, the vast majority of the rest are guilty pleas. "Criminal justice today is for the most part a system of pleas, not a system of trials." Lafler v. Cooper, 566 U.S 156 (2012).
I'll do a separate post about pleas generally, but in brief: (1) pleas should be made with the understanding that if a plea is not protecting the interests of the State and victims, it should go to trial; and (2) even under the rules governing prosecutorial ethics, the County Attorney is free to explain why he entered into a particular plea bargain (and should do it as a matter of course).
There have been SOME improvements, haven't there? What about switching to electronic files from paper? Yes, that's an improvement. If you think Mr. May is technically savvy enough to make that switch, I have some NFTs I’d like to sell you. The switch happened in the first year of his tenure, before he and I had come to loggerheads, and he had the good sense to trust me to lead that project.
There are still lots of things that can be improved in office policies and procedures, and we had a golden opportunity to make some improvements when courts were closed due to COVID. Not one meaningful project or policy was implemented by Mr. May during that entire year from March 2020 - March 2021 when there was only one trial that went to jury.