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Life Sentence For Missouri Woman Convicted Of Assaulting Police Officer Is ‘Extremely Distressing,’ Justice Advocate Says

Nicole Poston was sentenced in July for punching a police officer after she slipped free from a handcuff. Life sentences, even for nonhomicide offenses like Poston’s, are ‘a major factor’ in mass incarceration in the U.S., a criminal justice expert said.

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A Missouri woman sentenced to life in prison last month for assaulting a police officer received an “extremely distressing and problematic” sentence, a criminal justice advocate says. 

On Aug. 8, 2019, Rolla Police Department officers arrested Nicole Poston, 30, on a warrant after she did not appear in court for a drug case for which she didn’t realize the date had been changed, her attorney, Phelps County public defender Jacob Sells, told The Appeal. (That charge was later dismissed.) After the arrest, she had a seizure and was taken to the hospital, where doctors administered seizure medication she took regularly and gave her an IV. 

Upon release from the hospital, Officer Leann Robertson cuffed Poston’s hands to the front of her body because of the IV, according to a report filed as part of the case. Once at the entryway to the Phelps County Jail, she became anxious about being locked up. She freed herself from one of her handcuffs and punched Robertson in the face while using the handcuffs as a weapon, according to the report. “I’m not going back to jail,” Poston was recorded as saying. 

Phelps County Prosecuting Attorney Brendon Fox convened a grand jury that indicted Poston for first-degree assault while using a dangerous weapon. The assault charge carried up to a life sentence because the victim was a police officer. 

At trial in January, Robertson testified that she suffered a traumatic brain injury and still experienced headaches and problems balancing. According to a probable cause report, she also received cuts on her temple and nose. Approximately 50 law enforcement officers attended the trial in a show of support, according to a news release issued by Fox. She was convicted in January of first-degree assault of a law enforcement officer and armed criminal action.

During the trial, Sells argued that the incident was not premeditated and was out of character for Poston, who had a history of drug charges but not violence. At the sentencing hearing, Poston’s mother testified that she became addicted to drugs after doctors removed a cyst on her face when she was a teenager. Sells asked Judge William Hickle, who presides over the circuit court for Phelps County, for a sentence that would have resulted in three years of incarceration if Poston completed a program. 

“Nicole was not the person to use to send the message ‘we are tough on people who assault law enforcement officers,’” Sells told The Appeal. “We don’t think that Nicole was intentionally trying to cause calculated damage to Officer Robertson.”

In a statement during Poston’s sentencing on July 30, Hickle said: “Part of my job is to make sure dangerous people aren’t allowed to hurt other people again. I believe this sentence is necessary to protect the community from future harm.”

Nicole Porter, director of advocacy for The Sentencing Project, told The Appeal that Poston’s sentence is “extremely distressing and problematic, but unfortunately not out of the ordinary given the nature of sentencing in the United States.” One in seven people in prison is serving a life sentence, according to a 2018 Sentencing Project report

“The fact that life sentences are allowed, even for nonhomicide offenses, is a major factor in why the United States has mass incarceration,” she said.

In response, Fox told The Appeal in an email: “People are entitled to their opinions, but the judge who presided over the trial, observed all the evidence, and weighed the arguments of both sides determined the sentence was appropriate.”

Sells has appealed Poston’s sentence and asked for a new trial on the grounds that the court made several errors during trial such not allowing for a continuance to prepare for testimony regarding mental illness.  

Before the August 2019 incident involving the officer, Poston had a history of drug use that shuffled her in and out of the court system in Phelps County, roughly 100 miles southwest of St. Louis. Leading up the incident, court records show that Poston had been arrested several times on various drug charges. In 2015, she was charged with possession of a controlled substance with the intent to distribute. She pleaded guilty to that charge and a second-degree burglary charge in 2017. Poston was incarcerated at the Phelps County Jail for 75 days in 2018 after she pleaded guilty to possession of a controlled substance. 

Along with the life sentence, Poston was sentenced to 20 years for using handcuffs in the attack. She will be eligible for parole in 25 and a half years under state law, according to Sells.