It took the jury all of 26 minutes to return its verdict. Not guilty.
A six-person jury found Jonathan Vanderhagen not guilty Thursday following a three-day trial in 41B District Court on a charge of malicious use of a telecommunications device for several Facebook posts last July regarding family Judge Rachel Rancilio of Macomb County Circuit Court in Mount Clemens.
Vanderhagen was held on half a million dollars bail for one count of the misdemeanor charge of malicious use of telecommunication services stemming from his Facebook posts about the death of his son.
The saga began two years ago when Vanderhagen petitioned Macomb County Circuit Court Judge Rachel Rancilio for sole custody of his 2-year-old son, Killian. Vanderhagen argued that Killian’s biological mother was unfit to be Killian’s sole guardian. Judge Rancilio disagreed and the child’s mother was able to retain custody.
Shortly after the custody dispute, Killian passed away in his mother’s care from what authorities concluded was a preexisting medical condition.
Despite that conclusion, Vanderhagen believed that Killian would still be alive had he been granted custody. Since his son’s death in 2017, Vanderhagen has used his Facebook page to criticize Rancilio’s custody ruling. Those posts, none of which were deemed threatening by the police department that investigated them, landed Vanderhagen in jail.
After his arrest, he continued to express his belief that Rancillo was to blame, for which his bail was raised to $500,000 by District Court Judge Sebastian Lucido, whose grasp of the First Amendment implications of his decision included this gem.
THE COURT: There cannot be anything of a threatening nature. You can’t yell. They used the example, the famous case, you can’t yell fire in a public place or movie theater, something like that. We’re talking about threatening a sitting Circuit Court Judge is the original allegation against Mr. Vanderhagen.
As Vanderhagen’s lawyer, Nick Somberg sought to explain to a brick, there was no threat, no contact, but merely the unsafe feelings of a female judge. Judge Lucido couldn’t express why, but he was unmoved.
MR. SOMBERG: I understand that, your Honor, but you just said that you found the exhibits to show that they are threatening in nature. I’m just asking what—
THE COURT: Correct—
MR. SOMBERG: —is threatening about them.
THE COURT: —because [they’re] alluding to Judge Rancilio and I’m not going to sit here and explain it any further.
As frustrating as this may be, it’s hardly unusual. Judges often rule from the hip, and deflect when pressed to explain. You can’t make them and they don’t have to. But this case, from start to the two-word verdict followed by Vanderhagen’s release from custody, remains shocking in its absurdity. The question is no longer what will happen to the defendant, as the verdict answered that question. And, in a sense, should restore some faith in the system and appreciation to Nick Somberg for his excellent work.
But beating the rap isn’t beating the ride, and it seems inconceivable that Judge Lucido could do as he did, both in raising bail to put Vanderhagen in custody as well as allowing this case, which seemed clearly to be baseless before verdict and is conclusively baseless afterward, to proceed. Why? Why didn’t Lucido toss this case? Why did Lucido toss Vanderhagen in jail pending trial?* Why would a judge fail so spectacularly?
There are a few possibilities:
- The “victim” in the case was a fellow judge, and this was a matter of judicial professional courtesy or personal friendship.
- The “victim” in the case was a judge, and Judge Lucido felt that protection of judges from attack was critical for the independence of the judiciary.
- Judge Lucido was just a carceral dope who was biased against the accused, in general, or Vanderhagen, in particular.
- Judge Lucido was a woke ally who embraced the “believe the woman” trope, and consequently acted upon Judge Rancilio’s claim of feeling unsafe.
- Judge Lucido feared that any sign of his failing to take Judge Rancilio’s claim of feeling unsafe seriously might result in his being Persky’d.
It would be purely speculative to guess which of these, or even some entirely unknowable reason, motivated Judge Lucido’s decisions. What is not speculative, however, is that this was the outgrowth of unpleasant speech that made a woman feel “unsafe.”
It’s understandable that Vanderhagen was angry, about the death of his son and the fact that he was denied custody of his son by Judge Rancilio. Absent a showing that the mother is a serial killer, women are rarely denied custody of a child. While tragic deaths happen to children, whether in the hands of a good parent or bad, it’s the sort of thing that a person tends to believe would have been avoided with better care, better parenting. Whether that’s true in this case is unclear, but Vanderhagen believed it to be true. As a grieving father who lost his child, he’s entitled to this indulgence.
Was the handling of this case by Judge Lucido dependent on the fact that the victim was a judge? If so, it reflects one sort of wrong, a bias in favor of his colleague that violates his duty as a judge. If it was a reflection of bias against defendants, or Vanderhagen personally, it’s a different wrong, the inability to be neutral as required of a judge.
But given that this was speech, given that the claim of harm was an irrational feeling of being “unsafe,” that this case proceeded, particularly in the fashion it did, forewarns of what would happen if unsafe feelings become a common basis for prosecution. Sure, Vanderhagen was acquitted in just 26 minutes by the jury, but Judge Lucido still made him take the ride.
*Notably, there was an “emergency appeal” of the bail increase, noted in the Reason post, but no mention whatsoever of the outcome of the appeal.