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Crime & Courts

He choked a woman and sexually assaulted her. Why was his sentence so lenient?

The head of the Alaska Department of Law's criminal division said Saturday the state chose the best option it had under the law in a plea deal that has shocked many Alaskans, and one the prosecutor agrees is too lenient for an Anchorage man who violently attacked a woman then sexually assaulted her.

On Wednesday, Anchorage Superior Court Judge Michael Corey 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 Schneider — kidnapping — and involved a conviction only on second-degree assault.

Corey now faces an initiative to oust him. And John Skidmore, the criminal division director who wasn't directly involved in the case, said he's answered more than 50 angry emails from citizens since Thursday. Social media has been filled with outrage over the deal.

"They're angry for the same reason I'm angry," he said. "Because the sentence imposed seems outrageously lenient, given the man's conduct. But when you look at the options under the law, it was the best we could achieve."

Schneider was charged with offering the woman a ride and then tackling her, choking her until she became unconscious then masturbating on her.

In a statement released on Friday, Skidmore announced he'd reviewed the case and the sentence and concluded it was "consistent with, and reasonable, under current sentencing laws in Alaska."

In an interview Saturday, Skidmore added further context to that view.

He said he also spoke with Anchorage Assistant District Attorney Andrew Grannik about an inappropriate comment Grannik made during the hearing, and one that further inflamed the public outrage.

The victim — an Alaska Native woman — wasn't present, or on the phone, during the hearing.

Sexual assault advocates say the seemingly lenient sentence highlights a deeply flawed legal system.

"This gesture by the DA and the judge is absolutely obscene," Keeley Olson, executive director of Standing Together Against Rape, said Friday.

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The plea deal never should have happened because Schneider should have been charged with attempted murder in the first place, said Olson, 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.

Skidmore said Saturday he respectfully disagrees with Olson on whether Schneider should have been charged with attempted murder. Based on his 20 years' experience as a prosecutor, this was not an attempted murder, he said. Defense attorneys would have successfully pointed out that if Schneider had wanted to kill the woman, he would have done so when she was unconscious.

"Most people look at the conduct and they say he engaged in strangulation to the point where she passed out, and that's pretty serious and that's ugly, and I don't disagree with that at all," Skidmore said. "But attempted murder requires someone to have specific intent, the conscious objective to kill the other person, and as horrible as Mr. Schneider's conduct was, that was not his intent."

'Violently grabbed her neck'

In August 2017, Schneider picked up a 25-year-old woman at a gas station at Spenard Road and Minnesota Drive 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.

Skidmore said in an interview on Saturday that the court had set the house arrest early on in the case. Prosecutors sought jail time, not the house arrest, but the court made the call, Skidmore said.

"It's out of our control," he said.

Skidmore said he did not know which judge made that early decision.

The plea deal dismissed several other charges against Schneider including kidnapping and harassment.

Move to recall judge

The anger over the plea deal prompted an Anchorage social worker to create 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."

Grannik said during the hearing he'd failed to reach the victim by phone for the hearing and would have needed help from detectives to find her for trial.

Skidmore said the victim did not have a stable living environment. She could be found only sporadically. If the case had gone to trial without a victim to testify, the state could have lost the entire case and achieved no sentence whatsoever, he said.

Schneider could have gotten off "with no sanctions whatsoever, with a clean criminal record."

Grannik during the hearing said the plea deal could be considered "a pass" for Schneider and that he hoped Schneider — who has no previous criminal record in Alaska — would be a good candidate for rehabilitation, according to coverage by KTVA-TV.

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."

Skidmore on Saturday called that an "unfortunate comment that Mr. Grannik made and I've discussed it with him."

"It doesn't come anywhere close to being a life sentence," or compare to going to jail at all, said Skidmore.

As for calling it a "pass," the state said in a statement on Friday 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."

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.

'Appalling …'

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."

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.

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.

The governor on Friday also 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."

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