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The phrase “rush to judgment” got a new meaning in a St. Louis courtroom. Three months ago, a judge sentenced a defendant to five years in prison for alleged burglary. The problem: There had been no trial. And the defendant, Michael Cook, 46, who had pleaded not guilty, was not even in court at the time. The judge had a form on his bench signed by a public defender that incorrectly stated that his client had pleaded guilty. The judge made no further inquiry. The story came to a happy ending, or an almost happy ending. The mistake was discovered, and Cook was allowed to enter into an actual plea agreement, the terms of which set him free. However, he was rearrested on a warrant from Ferguson, Mo., for alleged failure to appear on a speeding ticket, according to the clerk of the St. Louis Circuit Court. ‘MORTIFYING’ SITUATION Cook, of Belleville, Ill., has been in custody for almost a year since being charged with two counts of second-degree burglary for break-ins at a St. Louis nightspot. In a nunc pro tunc hearing, Circuit Judge Julian Bush — the judge who had erred — called the situation “mortifying and embarrassing,” according to a transcript of the proceeding obtained by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “Evidently … an attorney representing Mr. Cook prepared a judgment entry in anticipation that Mr. Cook would plead guilty … but that Mr. Cook decided to plead not guilty,” the judge said, according to the transcript. “Somehow or other, I don’t think anybody’s quite sure, the sentence and judgment drafted by this lawyer ended up on the judge’s desk, it was my desk, with some other papers, and I carelessly did not look at the papers carefully enough and signed the sentence and judgment. And off went Mr. Cook. It’s my fault.” The plea agreement had not been signed by Cook or by Assistant Circuit Attorney Catherine Crowley, the prosecutor in the case, as required by Missouri law. Michael Meyers became Cook’s attorney on June 11 shortly after Cook’s arrest. By June 28, Cook was requesting new counsel, claiming dissatisfaction with Meyers’ representation. A court rejected Cook’s request. After the nunc pro tunc hearing, at which Cook was represented by another public defender, he was brought back to St. Louis and his case was put back on the trial docket. Meyers said he discovered the court’s error in January and began to unravel it then. He said he had no idea how the plea got on the judge’s bench in the first place. Last week, the case was transferred to another judge and Cook was represented by yet another public defender. He faced seven years in prison if convicted. He pleaded guilty to both counts and was sentenced to a year in prison. He was given credit for time served. This time everyone signed the plea agreement.

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