Son freed from jail after 50 days for court outburst at father's sentencing
URBANA — Perhaps the third time really was the charm.
Whatever karma was at work for Willie Craft Jr., his third handwritten plea to the Champaign County judge he called a "bitch" in a crowded courtroom got him out of the Champaign County Jail.
After serving 50 days for direct criminal contempt of court, the 30-year-old Urbana man was released Thursday afternoon.
Because the underlying reckless homicide case involving Craft's father, Willie Craft, 59, is on appeal, Judge Richard Klaus said he is forbidden by judicial rules from publicly discussing any aspect of the case, including the six-month jail sentence he imposed on the son moments after his outburst.
A brief docket entry made Thursday in Craft's case indicated simply that Klaus had read another letter from Willie Craft Jr. and took pity.
"Contemnor's sentence is reduced to time served and the Contemnor is ordered released from custody effective immediately," it stated.
Even with good time, Craft could have been held another 40 days had Klaus not relented.
The five letters that he sent to Klaus and his boss, Presiding Judge Tom Difanis, and another he sent to The News-Gazette, show his emotions while in jail ran from regretful and apologetic to frustrated, angry, mean-spirited, then back to apologetic.
He penciled his most recent three-page letter to Klaus Monday.
"I have the utmost respect for you and your duties as a judge, sir. I was in a dark place at the time of the incident. ... I was not trying to disrespect you or your courtroom. I honestly had an emotional outburst and that is my only excuse," he reiterated.
As he had in previous letters, Craft noted that people with worse indiscretions had come and gone from jail in the 50 days he'd been there. He claimed to have lost his home and was at risk of losing his father's Urbana home for non-payment of bills.
On July 9, Klaus sentenced the elder Craft to 3 1/2 years in prison after he pleaded guilty to reckless homicide for causing the death of University of Illinois student Mimi Liu, 20, on Oct. 9, 2013.
Suffering the effects of an uncontrolled diabetic episode, Craft erratically drove his pickup truck for several blocks along South Lincoln Avenue before he struck and killed Miss Liu and severely injured another UI student, Spandana Mantravadi, 20.
The News-Gazette was present at his sentencing hearing, which was crowded with onlookers and emotional even before the younger Craft's outburst. Captured on video, the edited version of what Craft Jr. said to Klaus resulted in more than 14,000 views.
In his letters, Craft Jr. said he is responsible for his father's affairs and for caring for his 14-year-old niece, who lived with his widowed father. The teen has been living with a family friend and started high school last week, a fact that Craft Jr. lamented missing out on.
"I deeply apologize and hope that you can sympathize with me for the sake of my sick father and my lost niece," Craft wrote in a July 14 letter to Klaus. "Her grandpa is in jail. Her mother is in jail and both of her uncles are in jail."
Craft's younger brother, Tyler Craft, 27, was also jailed on July 9 after he yelled at the parents of Miss Liu after the hearing was over. He pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct and was released after eight days in the county jail.
At an Aug. 8 court hearing, Champaign attorney Scott Lerner tried to get Klaus to reduce Craft Jr.'s contempt sentence.
"Willie said the things that were the right things to say and he said he understood why the judge did what he did," Lerner said.
"In my argument I reiterated that given what he had seen and was going through at that moment, he may have acted in a stupid manner but it wasn't something where it was an intent to hurt anyone or show disrespect for the court," Lerner said.
Lerner said the judge told Craft at that Friday hearing that the contempt wasn't about whether he had upset or embarrassed the judge but about maintaining the safety of the courtroom. Klaus said he would think about the request over the weekend and let Craft know his decision on Monday.
He did that by a one-line docket entry, indicating he denied the request.
"He was certainly disappointed," said Lerner of the news he delivered to Craft in person at the jail.
Even though he understands contempt findings are permissible, the defense attorney still chafes at them.
"The concept that you can jail somebody for six months without a trial is a hard concept. It seems un-American to me," he said.
Learning Friday that Craft had been released, Lerner expressed relief.
"That is the right thing to do," he said.
Craft Jr. could not be reached for comment.