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Amid public outrage Friday, the Alaska Department of Law backed a controversial no-jail sentence for an Anchorage man who choked a woman until she passed out and then sexually assaulted her.
The statement from the department came in response to public concerns as a movement calling for Anchorage Superior Court Judge Michael Corey's ouster gained momentum.
Corey on Wednesday sentenced 34-year-old former air-traffic controller Justin Scott Schneider to no immediate time behind bars after approving a plea deal that dismissed the most serious charge against him — kidnapping — and involved a conviction only on second-degree assault.
The victim wasn't present, or on the phone, during the hearing.
Sexual assault advocates say the seemingly lenient sentence and the district attorney's lack of diligence including the victim — an Alaska Native woman – highlights a deeply flawed legal system.
"This gesture by the DA and the judge is absolutely obscene," said Keeley Olson, executive director of Standing Together Against Rape.
An Anchorage social worker created a Facebook page calling for a "no" vote on retaining the judge on the Nov. 6 ballot. Voters will decide whether Corey, appointed by Gov. Sean Parnell in 2014, remains in office. The Alaska Judicial Council is unanimously recommending he be retained.
Elizabeth Williams, who described herself as a sex-assault survivor who worked with STAR for five years, said she was motivated to create the page out of recognition that Alaska has an epidemic of sexual assault.
"Also that this particularly hurts Alaska Native women," Williams said. "This is another example of an Alaska Native woman not getting the justice they deserve."
Anchorage Assistant District Attorney Andrew Grannik during the hearing said the plea deal could be considered "a pass" for Schneider and that he hoped the Schneider — who has no previous criminal record in Alaska — would be a good candidate for rehabilitation, according to coverage by KTVA-TV. He also said he'd failed to reach the victim by phone for the hearing and would have needed help from detectives to find her for trial.
Schneider, who worked air traffic control at Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport, lost his job over the charges, KTVA reported. Grannik called that a "life sentence."
A number of concerned citizens, however, told the state law department that Schneider's actual sentence was too lenient.
In response, criminal division director John Skidmore on Friday announced he'd reviewed the case and the sentence and concluded it was "consistent with, and reasonable, under current sentencing laws in Alaska."
Gov. Bill Walker, meanwhile, issued a statement saying the sentence was insufficient and saying he wants to toughen the law.
Schneider's defense attorney didn't return a call for comment.
'…was indeed going to kill her'
Schneider picked up a 25-year-old woman at a gas station in Midtown Anchorage before parking, choking her, and masturbating over her unconscious body, according to charging documents. She said there was no sex or money involved, and she was just looking for a ride to her boyfriend's in Muldoon.
Schneider "immediately and violently grabbed her neck in a front choke hold with both hands and told her if she screamed, he'd kill her," Anchorage police detective Brett Sarber wrote in a sworn affidavit. "The man kept squeezing her neck harder, and then told her that he was indeed going to kill her."
The woman said she lost consciousness, "thinking she was going to die," and woke up covered in ejaculate with Schneider standing over her, zipping his pants, Sarber wrote. He told her "he needed her to believe she was going to die so that he could be sexually fulfilled…"
The woman called 911 and was taken to the emergency room at the Alaska Native Medical Center, where she was interviewed by police.
They arrested Schneider. He was placed under house arrest on an ankle monitor in the supervision of his wife, court documents show.
Schneider pleaded guilty Wednesday to a count of second-degree assault for the attack.
The judge sentenced him to two years with a year suspended. He was given credit for the year he spent in house arrest. So Schneider will only have to do jail time on this conviction if he violates the conditions of his three-year probation.
The plea deal dismissed several other charges against Schneider including kidnapping and harassment.
Grannik didn't return a call for comment Friday.
Instead, it was Skidmore who provided an explanation for the plea deal.
The Department of Law on Friday noted the sentencing range for second-degree assault, based on Schneider's lack of criminal history, is zero to two years in jail.
The kidnapping charge was dismissed because proving it "requires that the victim be 'restrained' or moved against his or her will," the department statement said. Because the woman willingly got into Schneider's car and drove to the attack location, the criminal charge of kidnapping "could not be proven beyond a reasonable doubt."
As to Grannik's use of the word "pass," the state said that "unfortunate and misunderstood" word choice was the prosecutor's attempt to "explain that while the agreed upon sentence seemed lenient, it was consistent with current Alaska law and based on a thorough review of the facts of case."
The act of ejaculating on an unconscious victim is not a sex crime under Alaska law.
"Despite this limitation, the prosecutor felt Mr. Schneider needed sex-offender treatment. The only way to achieve that result was to have Mr. Schneider agree to the probation conditions," the state said.
One of the conditions of Schneider's 3-year probation is sex-offender treatment and other monitoring.
The plea deal never should have happened because Schneider should have been charged with attempted murder in the first place, said Olson, the STAR director who is also a former victim's advocate for prosecutors in Washington and Montana.
Olson said she's worked with sex-assault victims who had been choked who walked out of her office, with a doctor's approval, only to collapse and die.
"It is absolutely appalling," she said, of a plea deal she called one of the most lenient she'd ever seen.
It's unusual for Skidmore to get directly involved in sentencing decisions, according to Assistant Attorney General Kaci Schroeder.
"It's not a regular occurrence … but when things are elevated or there's complaints then those things get brought to his attention," Schroeder said.
Meanwhile, the governor on Friday said Schneider's sentence was insufficient. He said next week he will release proposed legislation making unwanted contact with semen a sex crime. First-time offenders will face between two and 12 years of jail, and required registration as a sex offender.
The governor also will propose additional legislation soon to address the scourge of sexual violence in Alaska, the statement said.
"This sort of outcome makes it even more difficult for victims to come forward," Walker said. "The punishment in this case in no way matched the severity of the crime. We must fix this problem immediately, and we will."
Daily News reporter Alex Demarban contributed.