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A profile in courage

Jack Lessenberry

The reason that clichés exist is simple: They often express basic truths, as in, common sense is an extremely uncommon thing.

So is the ability to do the right thing even when there’s extreme pressure not to.

It doesn’t require much courage these days to bash Muslims.

But if there is a more reviled group than suspected terrorists, it would be sex offenders, especially when children are involved. I’ve never heard of any judge being criticized for being too tough in such a case.

But U.S. District Judge Avern Cohn has been taking tremendous heat for doing the opposite thing – for releasing an accused child pornographer on bail, a former camp counselor who admitted to taking pictures of, and being sexually aroused by naked little boys.

The little boys’ parents and family members are outraged.

If the judge were interested in a popularity contest, he could have tossed the defendant in solitary.

If the judge were interested in a popularity contest, he could have tossed the defendant in solitary. But Avern Cohn did the unpopular thing because it was, clearly, the right thing to do.

I should reveal that I have known the judge for years, and have had many conversations with him about history and the justice system.

He is one of the most brilliant scholars I have ever met. And here is why he did what he did in this case:

Matthew Kuppe was a 21-year-old counselor at a Jewish Community Center camp who has been charged with a raft of felony federal child pornography counts.

If convicted, he could face up to 30 years in jail. He allegedly posted naked pictures of some five-year-old boys on a Russian website, and in an email, asked someone who turned out to be an undercover officer to exchange fantasies about them.

But there is no evidence that Kuppe ever did anything other than take naked pictures of them without their knowledge and post them on the Internet. The Oakland County Prosecutor’s office concluded there wasn’t any evidence that any boys had been molested.

Based on that, Judge Cohn ordered Kuppe released to the custody of his parents. He noted that the prosecution had not “established by clear and convincing evidence that he is a danger to the community,” an opinion shared by two psychologists who interviewed the defendant.

As the judge pointed out, pretrial release is the norm, and any defendant is entitled to a presumption of innocence.

By the way, I wouldn’t exactly call Kuppe’s current status “freedom.” He has to wear a monitoring device, remain in the presence of adults, can’t talk to children or go on the Internet. He’s under severe house arrest.

He instead did what he believed was just, no matter the cost.

Nevertheless, Judge Cohn is being excoriated for not keeping Kuppe behind bars. There’s no threat to Cohn’s career; federal judges are appointed for life.

But on a personal level, this may well be difficult for the judge, who is a pillar of Detroit’s Jewish community. The children and the defendant are all Jewish, and it would have been easy enough for Avern Cohn to ask for another judge to take this case.

But my guess is that he never even thought of ducking his responsibility. He instead did what he believed was just, no matter the cost. I only wish that was a quality we saw more of in those who would have us elect them President.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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