Knapp: David Schubert didn’t have to die

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The death last week of former chief deputy DA David Schubert probably did not come as a surprise to those who knew him well. Schubert had been despondent ever since being busted in 2011 for purchasing 40 bucks worth of crack cocaine from a street dealer. Those who worked with Schubert in prosecuting high-profile drug cases whispered their concerns that he might take his own life in the wake of the ridiculous, vengeful sentence he received at the hands of a local judge.

My only connection to Schubert is that I have written about his legal troubles a couple of times and expressed the opinion that what was being done to him was incredibly unfair. I did not know him personally, so I didn’t even realize he had already served five months behind bars and had been released when I got a tip early last week that he was dead. Within a few minutes, someone else called to give me the same news. It wasn’t exactly a surprise, but it still is maddening to realize that it didn’t have to happen.

OK, he screwed up. Somehow, along the way, he developed a taste for illegal drugs, even though his job was to prosecute people who had the same preferences. He handled the cases against Paris Hilton and Bruno Mars, both busted with small amounts of cocaine. They were admonished by the court, ordered to get treatment and given probation. But that wasn’t in the cards for Schubert. Someone decided an example needed to be made. Since floggings of manacled prisoners in the town square is no longer permitted, prison time would have to do.

Schubert’s greatest crime was that he seems to have embarrassed some people in the law-enforcement community. Maybe they were upset that he had been using drugs for months, right under their noses, but still managed to function at a high level, and in a very demanding job. Maybe there was a feeling that Schubert’s personal weakness was a black stain on the justice system itself, that it somehow besmirched the reputations of everyone else who works so hard to put druggies behind bars.

Give me a friggin’ break.

Has there ever been a first-time, nonviolent offender who was sentenced to nine months behind bars just for having a small baggie of dope? Maybe there’s a case or two somewhere, but there can’t be many. It makes no sense whatsoever for the public to pay tens of thousands of dollars to incarcerate someone who has never committed another crime, is no threat whatsoever to society, and who — with treatment and counseling — is redeemable, a man with a sharp mind whose talents and education could help a lot of other people. That was never going to happen, though. Someone wanted a pound of flesh, and they got it.

Former Clark County DA David Roger is not exactly a bleeding heart, slap-on-the-wrist guy when it comes to criminal sentences. He was always the kind of lawman who might clap his own mom in irons if she had it coming. Roger was reluctant to talk about Schubert’s case back when it was winding its way through the system, but he gave me his thoughts last week after the news broke about Schubert’s death.

“David was a good person and a dedicated prosecutor,” Roger said. “Everybody who knew him liked him and rooted for him during his difficult times.”

I asked Roger if he felt Schubert had been treated fairly. He chose his words carefully before he answered.

“Without question, David was treated differently than others charged with first-time drug offenses. The criminal justice system focuses on rehabilitating drug users when they first enter the system. Unfortunately, David was not afforded that same understanding and compassion by the system in which he worked,” the former DA said.

Roger said the hope among the legal folks downtown was that Schubert would be able to regain his law license after his release and that he had “brighter days ahead.”

Obviously, that did not happen.

Schubert didn’t deserve special treatment. He shouldn’t have been given any special breaks. He should have been treated like anyone else. When Judge Carolyn Ellsworth sentenced him to nine months behind bars, it might as well have been a death sentence. She rejected a standard plea deal that had been agreed to by both sides, and instead scolded Schubert for being “a disgrace to his oath”.

Schubert’s lawyer told a newspaper reporter that he had been out of contact for more than a week, unable to reach his client by phone, perhaps because Schubert could no longer afford to pay his phone bill. The attorney confirmed that Schubert had been depressed, dead broke, emotionally broken. We do not yet know for sure the cause of death. His body was found sitting in a vehicle that was parked in his garage. Whether it was a drug overdose or a suicide … or both … is almost irrelevant at this point.

This should never have happened. Schubert should have been ordered into a treatment program and given a chance to redeem himself, turn his life around — not shamed and humiliated and cast out. He didn’t kill anyone, didn’t grab a gun and run amok at an elementary school, didn’t plow his car into a crowded bus stop. He made a bad choice and he broke the law, but, seriously, nine months behind bars?

I remember something Sheriff Jerry Keller once said after one of his cops got into some kind of trouble. He said that so long as we hire human beings to be police officers, there are always going to be those who make mistakes. The same is true for prosecutors, bailiffs, FBI agents, Secret Service agents, and even — dare we say it — judges. Humans make mistakes.

Davis Schubert leaves behind two kids, ages 14 and 15.

NAMES AND PLACES

District Judge Valerie Vega made a good decision when she decided against running for re-election. The judge had to know it would have been an ugly and painful campaign. She made a mistake, dealt with the consequences and is now moving on with the next chapter of her life. … Former Sheriff Ralph Lamb is recovering at home after a heart operation. The 85-year-old Lamb, still tough as nails, underwent a heart procedure last week and was ready to leave the hospital the very next day. … Would love to have been a fly in the soup at La Comida restaurant in order to eavesdrop on the intense conversation between former Assembly Speaker Barbara Buckley and former legislator David Goldwater. Then again, maybe they were there for the guacamole, which is excellent. … Expect an announcement by former state Sen. Sue Lowden within a week. … Veteran sports gambler Lem Banker is on a bit of a media roll. Banker has had a busy schedule of interviews in the last few weeks, including a sit-down for an upcoming network news special about the tennis battle between Bobby Riggs and Billy Jean King. … Congrats to my longtime news photographer Matt Adams on his induction into the KLAS TV Hall of Fame — right up there with the likes of Howard Hughes.

GEORGE KNAPP is a Peabody Award-winning investigative reporter for KLAS Channel 8.