Gary underwent one of Cicconetti’s creative sentences several years ago. He was a first-time offender in a high-profile case. It made headlines in The Plain Dealer, on local television, in national media and even the tabloid The Daily Mail.
He would only agree to speak with Cleveland Magazine on condition of anonymity, including withholding details of the offense and sentence that would easily identify him. Gary says he was sentenced to be click-bait and does not want to further stoke the online flames.
“It’s completely immiserating,” he says of the aftermath of his Cicconetti sentence. “You don’t need to take the pulse of the country to know that people only read headlines.”
After his sentence, the Lake County native received several angry letters from strangers. People had apparently gotten his address from the court’s online records system. One day, a Bible unexpectedly showed up in his mailbox.
“The sense of public shame, in itself, is a punishment. I wouldn’t think that’s lost on [Cicconetti],” says Gary. “It seems like a strange tool set, to tar and feather, so to speak.”
Cicconetti’s creative sentences are delivered as a choice. A defendant is given time in jail or community service. Cicconetti knocks time off that punishment if the defendant does a creative sentence. But, Gary says, even being offered the choice felt harmful.
“The damage is done by the offer,” says Gary. “If somebody were to say, ‘Oh I’ll just go to jail for a few days and not do this bizarre sentence,’ it’s still probably a story if it’s a bizarre enough sentence. That seems like a troubling point to me.”
The Internet search results for his name hamper his dating life, with many women asking him what happened after reading the news stories. The experience has become so overwhelming that Gary has seriously considered legally changing his name.
“You want to say, ‘I’m not an anomaly, many people have made that offense,’ ” he says. “But the punishment was somewhat of an anomaly.”
Gary doesn’t shirk responsibility. “I’m fully aware I did something wrong,” he continues. “But it feels disproportionate that you’d have to deal with it years later.”
As someone who had never experienced the criminal justice system at the time of his sentencing and has not since, Gary felt the usual courtroom experience would have been instructive enough.
“It’s not hard to see a situation where you can set a mob on somebody, and all of a sudden their kids are getting threatening letters and so forth,” he says. “We just had a very public, sensational killing on Facebook. Do we need that in our solutions as well?”
Cicconetti is not deaf to such concerns. Over the last few years, the judge has grown increasingly sensitive to the second life creative sentences can live online. He gets messages lauding ones he handed down years ago, because people dig them up and republish them.
“I think things have changed over the years,” says Cicconetti. “Someone that offends five years ago on an animal cruelty case shouldn’t be repunished five years hence because it reruns.”
Recently, Cicconetti has handed down fewer sentences that have made a splash. “We as judges have to give more thought to what we do, and the repercussions it would have,” he says.
In Cicconetti’s chamber, in a desk drawer full of paperwork, a manila folder holds a contract. It is for a television show, created by Law & Order producer Dick Wolf, called Law & Order: You the Jury.
“I was chosen out of all the candidates to be the moderator, the personality of the show,” says Cicconetti.
Similar in concept to American Idol, the show had a judicial twist. Two people would argue their case in front of Cicconetti. Then he would turn to the camera and give jury instructions to the audience at home, who would submit their votes.
In December 2015, Cicconetti was offered the role for a pilot plus five to eight episodes. He was given only three days to decide.
He’d been offered others roles before. About seven years ago, Cicconetti finished second in an audition process for another judicial show. He had also been offered a development deal with Disney.
“I get these things all the time,” Cicconetti says. “You get all these people who think they’re Hollywood producers.”
Cicconetti turned down the Wolf offer, just as he had the rest. Cicconetti has also passed up an appointment to the Lake County Probate Court. “I love this job. I’ve got a great staff,” says Cicconetti. “I didn’t want to have to start over across the street and be the rookie in that courthouse. Now, I’m the oldest tenured judge in Lake County.”
Cicconetti has been re-elected to four terms. If elections are a measure of public sentiment, Cicconetti is reliably popular in his hometown. From evictions to misdeeds to marriages, what seems like half of the city has been in his courtroom at one time or another.
He has been on the bench so long that a second generation is beginning to pass through. “If I see the father, the kids are 18 now,” says Cicconetti. “It’s pretty amazing, I’m starting to see a lot of juniors.”
A longtime member of the Elks Lodge and the Knights of Columbus, he maintains memberships at the Moose Club, Veterans of Foreign Wars (due to his father’s service), the American Legion, Americans of Italian Heritage and social memberships at the Hungarian Culture Club and the Slovenian Club in Fairport Harbor. “I do enjoy it, too,” says Cicconetti. “But I think it’s part of the job.”
Cicconetti can’t go to Giant Eagle or a restaurant without two or three people stopping him for a chat. After a recent surgery, his doctor recommended periodic walks as a part of his recovery. But the judge would so often be interrupted that he couldn’t work up a sweat.
Cicconetti is on the ballot again this year for another six-year term, and was unopposed in the Democratic primary. But Ohio municipal judges cannot be elected again after they turn 70. Cicconetti is 66. Given chances at stardom, Cicconetti has instead chosen to stay with the people that made him a civic fixture. This next term will be his last.
In early June, the judge is scheduled to give a commencement speech to the graduating class at his alma mater, Riverside High School. Cicconetti hasn’t written the speech yet, but knows he wants to get past the usual rigmarole about bright futures and unlimited potential.
Instead, he’ll probably say something like this — the closest he has to a personal philosophy — “You have to have time to breathe a little bit, still get the job done, but do what you have to do with an air of lightness once in a while,” says Cicconetti. “If you get criticized, you get criticized. It’s not the end of the world. There’s always tomorrow.”
“Is Damon here now?” Cicconetti asks.
Damon hops up from the pew and walks to the front. He leans on the lectern, his eyes level with the judge’s across the bench. Cicconetti tells him he’s facing a suspension of his license and some jail time, then asks Damon how he wishes to plead.
“I’d like to plead no contest to the OVI and guilty to the speed,” Damon says. Cicconetti says he can’t separate the charges, but he usually dismisses the speeding if someone pleads to the drunk driving. Damon enters a guilty plea to the OVI.
The judge recites Damon’s rights, then reads the police report aloud: the heel-toe stop and turn test, how Damon spent the night in jail. He asks Damon what his job is, which Damon uses to launch into his story in subdued tones.
“If I could, first, I’d like to tell you that this is all a big mistake. I shouldn’t have drove at all, and I understand that,” Damon says. He starts explaining the tilt, the light-up shoes, the embarrassment.
“What do you mean, your shoes lit up?” Cicconetti interrupts.
“They have little buttons on the side,” Damon replies.
“So when you walk, your shoes light up?” asks Cicconetti, breaking into an incredulous smile. “Heel to toe?”
“Every time I touched my foot, they changed colors,” says Damon. “They started laughing. I was embarrassed, sir.”
The judge starts laughing. His bailiff starts laughing.
Conflicting feelings rush through Damon. “You’re laughing at me too, dude? You’re going to get down on me?” Damon says later. He was embarrassed all over again. “But in a sense, I realized that once he was laughing, he was empathetic.”
Damon tells the judge about his scoliosis and the two Long Island iced teas. He asks for mercy, since he has a young son to care for. “All right, here’s what I’m going to do. It’s three days in jail, and this is a little unusual, but I’m going give you credit for one day if ...” Cicconetti says, pausing for a moment, “you do a DJ job at some charity event.”
Damon jumps at the creative sentence eagerly, suggesting he could DJ a party at the YMCA. The judge gives him his driver’s license back, though restricted to job and family-related trips.
When Damon came into the courtroom, he was facing up to 30 days of jail and a year’s license suspension.
Now he only has to do a weekend in jail. He can still drive. In return, all he has to do is play a gig. Damon turns and walks out of the courtroom, hand over his mouth, stroking his goatee, his face showing utter relief. “I could float away,” Damon says later. “I went from feeling like concrete, to like a balloon.”
Damon doesn’t wait around. “I wasn’t trying to smile until I was outside,” he says. “It felt like there was 10 cinder blocks on one shoulder, then [the judge] was like, Just carry this one stone.”
About two weeks after his court appearance, Damon completed his creative sentence. He lugged his gear to the Lake Metroparks and DJed a volunteer recognition party, spinning a playlist of jazz and oldies.
“One lady was like, ‘You know you can leave, you don’t have to stay for all this. I already signed your paper,’ ” Damon recalls. “I’m not that guy,” he told her. “I’m the guy that stays until the job is done.”
The woman was so impressed, she asked for a business card. The next week he shows off a selfie he took at the party, sweaty from a few hours of keeping the good vibes rolling. He’s wearing the Cavaliers hat. That, in a way, is what the judge hopes defendants get out of the whole experience — something constructive or instructive, a second chance or a shock to the system.
Results aren’t guaranteed. But it’s why Cicconetti sentences people to chicken suits and nights in the cold, why he has them walk in the Mardi Gras parade and plant peppers and corn in the court garden.
“There’s good that comes out of it,” says Cicconetti. “You hope there’s more good than just the sentence.”
When Damon walked into the courtroom, he was thinking about his 10-year curse: His dad left when he was 7 years old. The scoliosis diagnosis came at 17. At 27, he ended up in jail. But as he walked out of Cicconetti’s courtroom, at 37, he felt as if something went right.
“For once, the universe has balanced itself out,” Damon says. “I finally got a break, and it was very much needed.”