Illinois agency removes Belleville judge for misleading police in murder case

The commission that disciplines errant Illinois judges on Friday took the rare step of removing from office a downstate judge who, the commission found, had lied to police who suspected a friend of the judge’s had committed a murder.

Finding that Ronald R. Duebbert displayed an “utter disregard and contempt for the integrity and respect for the judiciary,” the Illinois Courts Commission ordered Duebbert, who had been a St. Clair County circuit judge since 2016, removed from the bench.

The commission ruled that Duebbert intentionally withheld from police the fact that he had provided a cellphone to the suspect the night before the murder, and spoken to the suspect by telephone that day. The commission also concluded that Duebbert testified falsely about his actions both to the Judicial Inquiry Board, which prosecuted the case, and then to the courts commission.

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Duebbert characterized the charges as a plot by political enemies who aimed to assassinate his character and ruin his career. He filed suit against the county and the state for $10 million in response to allegations, later dropped by his accusers, that he sexually abused and intimidated a former client.

Duebbert is only the fifth Illinois judge since 2000 to be removed from the bench, state records show.

At issue were Duebbert’s statements about his contact with David Fields, a friend who became a suspect after a man named Paul Silas was found shot to death in December 2016. Duebbert was sworn in as a judge days before the murder.

Duebbert had befriended Fields while working as a private lawyer in Belleville, the court commission found, and stayed in touch while Fields was serving prison time for committing an aggravated assault on a pregnant woman. After Fields’ release, the commission found, Duebbert let Fields stay at his house until after Duebbert’s election to the bench, and periodically lent Fields a cellphone.

Fields returned the telephone to Duebbert in mid-December 2016, the commission found. But on Dec. 29 2016 – days after Duebbert took office – Duebbert met Fields in a gas station and handed over some possessions that Fields had left behind, as well as providing him again with the phone, according to the commission. The two traded text messages that night, the commission found.

Silas was murdered early the following morning.

Police visited Duebbert at his Belleview home that afternoon to ask about Fields as a suspect in the murder. Madison County Sheriff’s Detective Timothy Lawrence testified that Duebbert told them the cellphone was “in his possession.” But Duebbert did not tell the officers that he had seen Fields and exchanged text messages with him hours earlier.

Duebbert testified that he interpreted police asking, “Do you have that phone?” in the literal sense, “as in ‘do you have that line, do you own that phone, do you pay for it? They did not ask me did I possess that phone,” he said.

He told the commission he was “aghast” that his statements to police could have been misleading.

The state takes formal action against judges in only a fraction of the complaints. Most end with at most a reprimand. Removals are rarely imposed.

But Duebbert is the second judge removed from office in the past year. Like Duebbert, DuPage Circuit Judge Patrick O’Shea was removed last year based on findings that, among other issues, he gave false information to police investigating a case.