David Dreier may avoid a prison sentence for the beating of Chris Brannan, who suffered a permanent brain injury.
In a rare courthouse move, the ranking Sedgwick County District Court Judge has removed another judge from a pending criminal case because of accusations of bias.
Judge Rebecca Pilshaw, the judge removed from the case, was never shy about her belief that David Dreier deserved more than probation for the attack on a college student from Wichita’s Vickridge neighborhood.
“He went there to fight, she said during the first half of Dreier’s sentencing hearing earlier this month. “He threw the first punch. He enjoyed the fight.”
The changing of the judges is the latest twist in the story of Chris Brannan, a 20-year-old college student who suffered a profound brain injury after being beaten and stabbed in Wichita’s affluent Vickridge neighborhood in August 1997.
The street brawl sparked by party crashers left Brannan unable to walk and needing full-time care.
The removal of Pilshaw midway through the sentencing of David Dreier – one of four people convicted in the attack – is a blow to the victim’s family, they said. Pilshaw was outspoken in her intent to send Dreier, 20, to prison, a position the family supported.
“We felt judge Pilshaw had conducted a very fair trial, and we are very disappointed they have seen fit to replace her,” said Jim Robinson, Chris Brannan’s grandfather.
Pilshaw’s removal was not the first unexpected twist in the case. That came when Dreier, the son of a minister and captain of his Hesston high school wrestling team, changed attorneys after his trial.
After being convicted by a jury of aggravated battery last year, Dreier let his public defender go and hired prominent criminal defense attorney Daniel Monnat specifically for his sentencing, which was scheduled to take place earlier this month.
Monnat hoped to spare Dreier from prison. Monnat argued that Dreier should not be imprisoned because of severe – even life-threatening – diabetes that cannot be managed well behind bars.
During the first half of Dreier’s sentencing hearing on March 8, Monnat called several witnesses, including the defendant’s coaches, teachers and his parents. Monnat hoped to portray Dreier as a good kid struggling with diabetes who made a mistake one night after drinking.
But halfway through the two-day hearing, Monnat filed a motion with Administrative Judge Paul Buchanan to change judges.
According to the motion, Pilshaw told Monnat that Dreier had “received all the breaks that he ever was going to get,” and that Monnat “had a certain amount of magic, but not enough to keep Mr. Dreier from going to jail.”
Monnat argued that those comments, and her efforts to put Dreier in jail despite his medical condition, showed she could not be impartial.
Pilshaw, a former prosecutor and experienced criminal trial judge who is known to speak her mind inside and outside the courtroom, refused to comment on her removal.
Before the sentencing hearing could resume on its second day, Buchanan reassigned the case to Judge Paul Clark, who is now scheduled to sentence Dreier on March 25.
Monnat and Buchanan refused to comment on the case.
“I changed the judge on the case pursuant to my authority (as administrative judge),” Buchanan said. “I am not going to comment on what another judge does.”
Stan Brannan, Chris Brannan’s father, said Monnat successfully changed the focus of the case from the victim to the criminal.
“It is kind of sickening to be worried about this guy’s diabetes when no one is worried about my son who suffered a severe brain injury,” he said.
“That is a tough deal for a victim’s family to understand. (Dreier) is a very serious threat to society.”
According to police and court records, Dreier was among several young men who went to Vickridge on Aug. 8, 1997, looking for a fight.
Afterward, Dreier told police he pummeled Chris Brannan until his face was “mush” and continued until Brannan was unconscious.
By Robert Short