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Coles jury bribery suspect gets 3-year prison term for DUI conviction; February hearing scheduled to check on bribery case
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Coles jury bribery suspect gets 3-year prison term for DUI conviction; February hearing scheduled to check on bribery case

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CHARLESTON — There's "no doubt" Christopher Whitley would benefit from a court drug treatment program, but his need for it isn't as great as those who "can't survive without it."

That was the conclusion a judge reached Wednesday in deciding on prison time for the Mattoon man convicted of his fourth DUI offense and still facing charges that he tried to bribe a member of a jury that found him guilty. 

Circuit Judge James Glenn ordered the minimum prison term of three years, noting Whitley's family and career and that his latest DUI offense came more than a decade after his previous one.

"Any further time would be disproportionate to what he's done," Glenn said.

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The judge mentioned several times during Wednesday's hearing that he wouldn't consider Whitley's pending bribery charges in deciding on the DUI sentence, as that case hasn't concluded yet.

Glenn ordered Whitley, who was free on bond, taken into custody immediately after the hearing but scheduled a Feb. 10 hearing to check the status of the bribery case.

Whitley, 41, was found guilty during a trial in April of driving under the influence of alcohol in May 2015.

From there, however, the situation became more complicated, with Whitley and another man accused of trying to bribe one of the trial's jurors.

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Also, Glenn at one point overturned the DUI verdict after a juror claimed to have overheard another juror say during a break in the trial that Whitley would "get what he deserved."

The judge later reinstated the guilty verdict, however, when the juror admitted fabricating the story. That incident led to the investigation that resulted in the bribery charges.

On Wednesday, Glenn's options were limited to imposing prison time —required because it was Whitley's fourth DUI conviction — or ordering Whitley into Coles County's drug court program.

With drug court, Whitley wouldn't have actually been sentenced pending his progress in the program.

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With successful completion of its treatment and other requirements, the case could have been dismissed. However, had he entered drug court and not been successful, he would have faced the required three- to seven-year prison sentence for the conviction.

Glenn said drug court, at or near capacity, is for "the people who really need it," not someone like Whitley who "has the tools and resources to do the things he needs on his own."

In a statement to Glenn, Whitley said he once thought only that he couldn't drink and drive but now understands that he can't drink at all. He said his drug court request wasn't "a way to avoid punishment" but he needed "more than good intentions" to stop drinking.

"It's not lost on me that I stand here because of my bad decisions," Whitley said. "I promise you I won't fail, I won't let you down."

Assistant State's Attorney Joy Messer asked Glenn to impose a five-year prison sentence.

She noted that Whitley was seen drinking in a beer tent in June during the Neoga Days festival, which was after he was found guilty of the DUI.

"This is not someone who wants to get help and get better," Messer said. "It's someone who wants to avoid prison. He's doing nothing on his own and that shows he doesn't want to get better."

Defense attorney Stephen Friedel called witnesses to testify about Whitley's support of his family and success at his job as a sales manager at the Pilson automotive dealership.

"Chris has built a life and a prison sentence takes it away," Friedel said. "Removing Chris from the community doesn't make the community safer."

At the end of the hearing, Friedel indicated that Whitley plans to appeal.

The case against the other bribery suspect, Joshua D. Foss, 42, of Mattoon, is pending.

Foss is accused of trying to bribe the DUI case juror on behalf of Whitley, asking her to say she committed jury misconduct by researching information about Whitley outside of court evidence.

The juror who admitted fabricating the story, Jacob R. Stephens, 24, of Mattoon, was sentenced to probation when he pleaded guilty in November to an obstructing justice charge.

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Reporter

Dave Fopay is a reporter for the JG-TC who covers Coles County, the local court system, Charleston schools and more.

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