EAST ST. LOUIS, Illinois — A federal judge on Wednesday rejected a plea deal on heroin and gun charges for a former Illinois judge at the center of a courthouse drug scandal involving another judge's cocaine death.
Calling the proposed 18-month prison sentence for Michael Cook "not sufficient," U.S. District Judge Joe Billy McDade said he would support a punishment that's fair to Cook but also "fair to the public in terms of reassuring them the judiciary is in fine shape and the judiciary is in good hands and one that continues to warrant their respect."
Cook, 43, pleaded guilty in November to a misdemeanor heroin-possession charge and a felony count of having firearms while being a user of controlled substances. Cook, who stepped down as a St. Clair County judge last May after he was charged, has admitted to being a drug addict in the past.
McDade didn't indicate how much prison time he would like to see Cook receive beyond the 18 months, but said "just because Mr. Cook was a judge doesn't mean I throw the book at him."
The judge gave Cook's lead defense attorney, Bill Lucco, three weeks to work out another deal with federal prosecutors after Lucco declined to go through with the sentencing. The next hearing in the case was scheduled for March 28.
Cook, who did not speak during Wednesday's hearing, remains free on bond. He retains the right to withdraw his guilty plea and seek a jury trial if McDade denies any future plea deal.
Lucco and the region's top federal prosecutor, U.S. Attorney Steve Wigginton, met privately after court was adjourned and declined to talk to reporters afterward.
McDade had said in an order last month that Cook deserved a longer sentence, citing Cook's prolonged drug use and his case's sullying of public confidence in the legal system.
The firearms charge is punishable by up to 10 years in prison and the heroin charge by no more than a year of confinement.
In pleading guilty, Cook agreed to forfeit to the government a cache of firearms that included pistols, shotguns and rifles.
Cook became an associate circuit judge in 2007 and a circuit judge in 2010. His legal troubles surfaced after his friend Joe Christ, a former longtime St. Clair County prosecutor and newly sworn-in associate judge, died of a cocaine overdose last March while staying with Cook at the Cook family's western Illinois hunting cabin.
Cook has not been charged in the death of Christ, a 49-year-old father of six.
Questions about Cook's drug use have led to overturned convictions in two murder trials in which Cook was the judge. They occurred between Christ's death and the time in which Cook was charged with the heroin and firearms counts. Prosecutors in those cases contended the convictions were the result of "overwhelming" evidence and that both defendants failed to cite specific examples of how Cook allegedly botched their trials.