The complications of humanity – its wrinkles, crosscurrents and black holes – are all on display as the case unfolds against Jeffrey J. Basil and the police officers who were with him when a bar patron was shoved down a flight of steps and left in a coma.
Basil, it seems safe to say in hindsight, should have been nowhere near a bar. His history of run-ins with the law and the tragic outcome of a May 11 confrontation document a foul-tempered pattern that should – in retrospect – have ensured he was not involved in the alcohol industry or, for that matter, debt collections, which he also sought to pursue.
William C. Sager Jr., 28, suffered a severe brain injury when he was pushed down a flight of stairs at Molly’s Pub in University Heights. He remains in a coma.
Basil, who ran the bar, has been charged with felony assault. Buffalo Patrol Officers Robert E. Eloff and Adam E. O’Shei have been suspended without pay for what they did – or didn’t do – when the attack took place at the bar where they had been working security.
Basil has been in and out of trouble for years, enough that, as a felon, he was prohibited by State Liquor Authority regulations from applying for a liquor license or managing a bar.
He sought an exemption, allowed for felons working toward rehabilitation, and was twice denied by State Supreme Court Justice Penny M. Wolfgang before she approved it on his third attempt three years ago.
Basil has several convictions on his record: a felony of attempted criminal possession of a controlled substance, a violation after an arrest for aggravated harassment and misdemeanor DWI. For the last one, he was sentenced to 90 days in jail. In January 2013 he was convicted of a violation – driving while ability impaired. Six months ago he was convicted of second-degree harassment.
Now, though, he is charged with an assault that could easily have left a man dead and appears to have caused permanent brain damage. And so, the question is, should Wolfgang have shown mercy on Basil?
In retrospect, of course, the answer is no. Yet there should be no question that the law needs to leave room for people to turn their lives around and to make a living.
Three of Basil’s arrests had to do with the use or attempted sale of intoxicating substances, and two others involved harassment. Together, they draw a picture of someone who doesn’t need to be working in the alcohol industry – or, for that matter, in debt collections, an industry with its own thuggish reputation, especially in Western New York.
There is no perfect formula that can guide judges on whom to allow exemptions from the standard consequences of criminal behavior. Human nature doesn’t allow for that, and judicial systems have been known to work poorly when politicians substitute their judgment for those of actual judges.
Nevertheless, this terrible episode suggests the need to reconsider the system, and whether certain crimes should simply prohibit some people from ever again working in a few licensed industries.
Basil didn’t have to manage a bar. He could have sold shoes at a department store. He’d have been better off for it, and so would William Sager.