The Valdez Star - Serving Prince William Sound and Copper River Basin

From Anchorage Daily News 

Guest opinion:

Exposed: Problems in Alaska's justice system and sexual assault


October 17, 2018

When Justin Schneider received a plea deal that allowed him to avoid jail time in a sexually motivated assault case that shocked Alaskans, many were justifiably outraged. The punishment didn't fit the crime, and the leniency of the sentence was difficult to square with any notion of justice. Unfortunately, one of the targets of the greatest ire in the wake of the sentence is Superior Court Judge Michael Corey, in whose lap the plea deal landed. It's understandable that Alaskans are looking for a way to make sure such an outcome doesn't occur again, but singling out Judge Corey isn't the right way to make sure of that.

The timeline of Schneider's case as it moved through the Alaska court system is a tragedy of errors that led up to an improper outcome. At junctures throughout the process, decisions were made that lessened the severity of the consequences Schneider faced for the egregious incident in August 2017 in which, according to a police report, he choked and threatened to kill a woman before masturbating on her.

The first error was in Alaska's laws themselves: Schneider's act wasn't classified as sexual assault. When the law was written, legislators didn't consider the possibility of such an incident, so it wasn't included in the definition. This error is so plain that Gov. Bill Walker has already proposed legislation to revise Alaska's legal definitions to classify Schneider's act as a sex offense - one punishable by between two and 12 years of prison time.

Subsequent issues in the case speak to the municipality and state's overburdened law enforcement and criminal justice divisions. Schneider's financial ability to hire effective private defense counsel was helpful in convincing a Superior Court judge to allow him to stay out of jail on electronic monitoring. Law enforcement, dealing with a swarm of other cases, lost track of the victim in the case. Prosecutors didn't subpoena her to compel her testimony in the case of a potential trial.

As happens in more than 95 percent of criminal cases nationwide, the Schneider case was resolved via plea bargain. That statistic is likely shocking to many Alaskans, but it's a near-inevitable consequence of a system in which the number of cases charged exceeds the capacity in time, space and funding for trials by orders of magnitude. It's a cold, hard reality that if prosecutors took every case to trial - or even half of them - the system would grind to a halt almost immediately, which would have the unintended consequence of forcing the release and dismissal of many defendants' cases because of their right to a speedy trial.

Having lost contact with the victim and with more than a year elapsed since the incident, state attorneys were in a bind, and opted to cut a deal that dropped all the charges except one count of second-degree assault. It was far less than had been originally charged, but they ran the risk of not being able to secure the victim's testimony at trial, without which the case would be exceptionally difficult to win.

When the deal came before Judge Corey, his options were few and limited. He wasn't legally allowed to consider the charges that had been dropped in considering the sentence agreed upon by the prosecution and defense, only whether the sentence is appropriate for the remaining charges. The sentence of one year in custody and one year suspended was within the 0-2 year range allowed under Alaska law, so if Judge Corey had rejected it, his decision would very likely have been overturned on appeal.

Was there more that could have been done? Judge Corey could have asked for a pre-sentencing report before agreeing to a sentence, which would have allowed prosecutors and defense attorneys to debate Schneider's prospects for rehabilitation and argue aggravating and mitigating factors that could have affected the sentence. That would have allowed state attorneys to make a case as to the seriousness of Schneider's conduct _ but it would also have allowed the defense to bring up his lack of prior offenses. It's hard to know with any certainty whether it would have helped reach a different outcome.

Judge Corey was unanimously recommended for retention by the Alaska Judicial Council. He was given a 4-out-of-5 rating by attorneys who came before him and a 5-out-of-5 rating by jurors. These recommendations should not be taken lightly; they represent a robust survey of the judge's four years on the bench.

Alaskans have a right to be outraged at the outcome of the Schneider case. But selecting Judge Corey as a scapegoat for a system with problems over which he had no control doesn't help ensure justice for future victims.

By the time the case reached Judge Corey's desk, the opportunities to provide true justice were past. He should not be held singularly responsible for the failures in the process before him. Most of the opportunities to ensure justice for future victims - closing loopholes in laws, providing funding for public safety and the Department of Law to more aggressively prosecute sex offenses _ lie in the hands of the Legislature. Alaskans who want justice for victims should petition the candidates running for office to make those changes, not make Judge Corey a sacrificial lamb for a broken system.


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