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Of marriage, mitigation and Graham

Published Oct. 10, 2005

Last week, County Judge Gary Graham gave Joel Steele a one-week break from his jail sentence. Steele says he took the chance to show that he deserved full-time freedom.

He lined up three job offers. He re-established ties with his fiancee's 3-year-old son. He touched base with his probation officer.

The only thing Steele says he didn't do was marry his fiancee, who lives with him and is seven months pregnant with their child.

According to Steele, that's the reason Graham sent him back to jail for good Tuesday morning.

"My understanding was if I was to get married, when I came back here, I would be released" from the 12-month sentence, Steele said after the hearing.

He and Michelle Canfield cited practical and philosophical reasons for not rushing their wedding, which they have scheduled for Aug. 28.

Graham said Steele's marital status was not the reason Steele's request was denied.

Rather, the judge pointed to Steele's criminal record _ which includes a 13-count felony offense for illegally using a credit card _ and Steele's failure to follow probation rules in the past.

"That's fine with me," Graham said when he learned that Steele had not married Canfield during his weeklong break from jail.

Assistant Public Defender Claire Molchan did not comment after the decision Tuesday. Assistant State Attorney Jim Tarquin said Steele's criminal record alone was ample reason to deny Steele's request.

The marriage issue popped up unexpectedly last week, when Steele asked for a break on the jail sentence that Graham had imposed. Steele, 29, was charged with failure to make payments on a videocassette recorder.

In his plea, Steele mentioned that Canfield was pregnant.

"As soon as I'm out, we're fixing to get married," Steele said at the time, according to a tape recording of the proceedings. He had just started serving the sentence.

That was all Graham needed to hear. He told the couple to step forward and prepare to exchange vows.

Steele said he needed a week to gather his family and make arrangements, such as securing a marriage license from the clerk's office. Graham gave him his temporary freedom and told him to be back in court the next week.

"I'm not telling you to get married, you understand," Graham said last week, according to the tape recording.

"Your attorney said that it was a factor in mitigation of your sentence that you are a husband and a father to be, but you're not" a husband, Graham said.

"So you can come back and finish your mitigation hearing Tuesday and we'll see what you have to say. Now, if you want to be single on Tuesday, that's fine with me. If you want to be married, that's fine with me.

"If you're single, I may still mitigate your sentence. I don't know," Graham said. "It's just that I don't want somebody standing there telling me they're going to be married, let me out so I can get married, because I don't want anybody fooling me."

Steele said marriage definitely was the key to freedom, no matter what Graham said Tuesday. After he heard that Steele was single, "he (Graham) had made up his mind from that point on."

Steele said his family is from Long Island, N.Y., and could not fly down for his wedding on a week's notice. Also, he and Canfield had hoped for a church wedding on Aug. 28, which is the 25th wedding anniversary of Canfield's parents.

"It's not right to ask a woman to walk down the aisle when she's seven months pregnant," Steele said.

Plus, "if he got married, he would be satisfying the county," Canfield said after the hearing. "To me, that's no reason to get married."