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March 24, 2006 - Philadelphia Daily News (PA)

The Informant, The Lies, The Injustice - And A Life Lost

By Elmer Smith

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

Charles Plinton was still struggling with the reality of his son's suicide when he found the box of cartridges. Three were missing.

"There were people who wondered if someone else had shot Chuck," Plinton told me. "But I never really thought that. He had bought the gun the same day."

That day was Dec. 12, 2005. Charles A. "Chuck" Plinton Jr. called his mother, Frances Parker Robinson, from his car on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. He told her he was going to kill himself and that there was nothing she could do to stop him.

She begged him to pray about it. He said he had. She asked him to call his father. He refused.

"Please let me look at you one more time," she reportedly told him.

She called her former husband to tell him about their son's distress call. Then they waited.

"She called me back later that night," Plinton recalled. "She said, 'He did it. He did it.' "

There are no easy answers when a man in his mid-20s, with a college degree and a promising future, decides to take his own life.

"He couldn't keep up," his dad said. "He could not pay the rent, his car payment. He had legal bills.

"It was just too much for him. Everything went downhill for him after what happened to him at the University of Akron. He never got over it."

What happened to Chuck Plinton was a massive injustice that the University of Akron is just now trying to resolve, six months after his death.

Luis M. Prozenza, president of the university, in a statement issued yesterday said he is "calling for a thorough assessment of university regulations governing the student disciplinary process."

A year earlier, a "thorough assessment" may have saved Chuck Plinton's life.

Instead, the university took the word of a paid informant in one of the shakiest minor drug cases that ever came before a jury. They suspended him, took away the tuition waiver and stipend he was living on and he was banned from the dorms for life.

Plinton, who lived alternately with his mother in South Jersey and his father in Norristown, was accepted into Akron's Masters in Public Administration program after graduating from Lincoln University in Chester County. His father and uncle were also Lincoln alums.

He was in his second semester at Akron when he was arrested and charged with selling marijuana to a paid informant who had been planted in his dormitory.

The informant, Richard Dale Harris, 35, was a career criminal and a paid operative of the Summit County Police Department. Among the long list of people he had fingered was his own sister. He claims he ratted on her to save her children from her.

He was paid $50 for every drug buy he made on campus. The buys he claimed to have made on March 3 and March 11, 2003, from Plinton, totaled less than $100.

But work sheets showed that Plinton was signed in at his job across campus at the time of the alleged March 3 drug buy, according to the court record.

Even the identification of Plinton based on the alleged March 11 buy was so shaky that the informant tried to confirm it with tapes from a dormitory surveillance camera. But that showed Plinton dressed differently from the man police said sold the drugs.

The case was falling apart until the detective who arrested Plinton suddenly recalled, three months after the arrest, that Plinton had confessed to him.

The detective couldn't explain why he didn't put the confession in writing or why he had failed to include it in his original police report.

A jury in Summit County took all of 40 minutes to acquit.

"There wasn't much debate," juror Jeannie Woodall told the Akron Beacon Journal."

An elated Plinton went before the university's disciplinary board, thinking his reinstatement was a formality. Instead, by a 3-2 vote, they decided that they believed the informant -- and not the jury.

"He was devastated," his father told me. "He couldn't afford more lawyers to fight the school."

So he came home and spent a year trying to rebuild his life. Until last Dec. 12, when it all became too much for him.

His family has not decided what, if anything, to do from here.

"We've been told that we have no legal standing to sue," Charles Plinton said.

Meanwhile, the university has been rocked by student protests and forced to answer tough questions, particularly from elements of Akron's black community.

"We hold ourselves to the highest standards of fairness," Prozenza said in his statement yesterday.

Too bad Chuck Plinton didn't live to see that.

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