St. Clair judge facing discipline over accusations he lied about contact with murder suspect

Beleaguered St. Clair County judge Ronald R. Duebbert on Tuesday told the judicial discipline authority that he misled police about his contact with a murder suspect because he “was petrified.”

“It’s clear my answers could have caused some misperception — and I’m aghast about that,” Circuit Judge Duebbert testified before the Illinois Courts Commission Tuesday. The board is considering charges by the Judicial Inquiry Board that Duebbert lied to police about his communications with a former murder suspect, and then made false statements under oath when questioned by the state’s judicial inquiry board.

Duebbert, who is openly gay, contends that the charges are a plot by political enemies to assassinate his character and ruin his career. He is also currently suing the county and state for $10 million in damages related to charges, dropped about a year ago, that he sexually abused and intimidated a former client.

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Duebbert has been relegated to administrative duties since 2017, when the inquiry board investigation took place.

At issue is his contact with former murder suspect David Fields, according to the complaint filed by the inquiry board in April 2018 with the courts commission, which holds the power to remove, suspend, censure or reprimand Duebbert if it finds him guilty of the “misrepresentations, deceptions, and omissions” alleged.

Police interviewed the judge at his Belleville home in late December 2016 after Paul Silas was found shot to death and Duebbert’s friend and former roommate Fields was named as a suspect, according to the complaint. Officers allege that he made several false and misleading statements about his contact with Fields, and lied again before a judicial board questioning him about the discrepancies, misportraying his interview with police as more cooperative than it was.

Fields, who met Duebbert in 2013, had been living with Duebbert before moving out earlier that month. Officers said they wanted to ensure that the alleged murder weapon wasn’t from the judge’s firearm collection. Investigators had also found out that a number known as Fields’ was actually registered and paid for by Duebbert, which led to questions about the phone.

“Rather than help the police, Judge Duebbert led them astray,” said board attorney Kevin Fee, of Sidley Austin LLP.

But Duebbert’s attorney Mary Robinson chalked the ordeal up to “a difference in perspective,” and confusion by a Benadryl-addled Duebbert of the questions he was asked. She contended before the commission that he cooperated with police, but that all of his answers weren’t captured by recordings and transcripts.

He was also worried that his career was at stake, his attorney said, given the officers’ focus on Duebbert’s guns.

“Judge Duebbert didn’t quite understand what was hitting him, but he understood there was a target on his back,” Robinson said. “He really did believe it was an effort to set him up, and to tie him to a murder.”

Police allege that Duebbert said he, not Fields, had been in possession of the phone for about a month, that he hadn’t had contact with the suspect since the alleged murder, and that he would advise him to turn himself in if he came in contact with him.

In court Tuesday, Duebbert admitted that he had met Fields at a gas station the night of Dec. 29, 2016, to drop off several items he had left behind, including clothes, documents and the phone.

When asked on the stand by Fee why he said he had the phone in his possession, Duebbert said he didn’t interpret possession in the literal sense of physically having something. He meant that he possessed the phone in the sense that he owned it and paid the bill, he said.

Duebbert also told police he would tell Fields to turn himself in if Fields contacted him, but had already spoken with Fields after the alleged murder, before police interviewed the judge for the first time.  In court on Tuesday, however, Duebbert claimed he actually told officers that he had heard from Fields but said so “off camera,” along with other relevant information in statements not captured by recordings.

The two state police who testified Tuesday contradicted his account, and said phone records showed Duebbert had communicated with Fields via text several times leading up to the alleged murder. Duebbert, however, said he didn’t remember the texts or mention them to officers because, “I was tired, I took Benadryl,” and was harrowed  by fears that the police were trying to tie him to the murder case.

“I don’t know what I thought, I was petrified,” he said.

Duebbert later turned the phone over to police after they inquired about it and visited his home to confiscate it, and he said he was stunned to find it in his garage, records show. The judge said Tuesday that he didn’t know how it got there, but that Fields knew several ways to get into the garage and could have also told someone else how to get in.

As for the omission to police that he had given Fields the phone, Duebbert said, under oath, it was due to his “petrified” state. Duebbert also said he was dealing with a respiratory illness at the time and suffered a coughing fit after officers’ left his house for the first time that rendered him unconscious on his kitchen floor.

The commission took Duebberts’s case under advisement, and set no date for its decision.

Duebbert, a former criminal defense attorney elected to the bench in 2016, met Fields in 2013, and the two forged a close personal relationship, according to court records. Fields was 20 at the time. In 2015, Fields pled guilty to aggravated assault on a pregnant person and was sentenced to prison. Duebbert called, visited, and sent money to Fields while he was behind bars, he said.

Fields requested his release to  Duebbert’s Belleville home, but the request was denied given numerous firearms in the residence. Fields moved in with his mother in Shiloh, Illinois, before relocating to  Duebbert’s in November 2016, less than a week before Duebbert won an election to his seat on the bench.

“I wanted to avoid the appearance of impropriety,”  Duebbert said.

Last year, Fields was acquitted in Silas’ murder. The alleged murder weapon was never found.