In Alaska, 'Righteous Rage' Over Sexual Assault
Editor's note: This story includes graphic details of assault.
The Alaska Department of Law is defending its plea deal with an Anchorage man who was originally charged with kidnapping and assaulting a woman to whom he offered a ride. He was let off on time served, after what many considered a violent, sexually motivated attack.
And that has angered some, including Elizabeth Williams, who is organizing a group to campaign against retaining the judge in the case, Michael Corey.
"Especially in this state, it was just so incredibly insulting for the judge to let him walk out of the court a free man," Williams said. "I was just absolutely appalled, and I think there was very much the feeling of 'here we go again.' "
Williams said the sentence is far too lenient considering the details.
Police said the victim in the August 2017 assault told them a man — later identified as Justin Schneider, now 34 — offered her a ride across town to her boyfriend's house. Instead, Schneider drove to a different spot, where he choked her to unconsciousness and — at least according to the original charges — committed what's known as "harassment by offensive contact with bodily fluids" when he masturbated on her.
Anchorage TV station KTVA first reported that Schneider was a "free man" on Sept. 19, after Corey accepted a plea deal and sentenced him. The state agreed to drop the kidnapping and harassment charges and Schneider was sentenced to time served: two years, with one suspended, the maximum under sentencing guidelines for one count of assault.
In court, Assistant District Attorney Andrew Grannik assured the judge the risk of Schneider's re-offending is low.
"I hope it doesn't happen. That's the reason why I made the deal that I made, because I have reasonable expectations that it will not happen," Grannik said. "But I would like the gentleman to be on notice that that is his one pass. It's not really a pass, but given the conduct, one might consider that it is."
Schneider got no prison time because Alaska counts his time served while wearing an ankle monitor, living at home with his family, leading up to the sentencing.
"I would just like to emphasize how grateful I am for this process," Schneider said in court.
"Thank you, sir, I appreciate those comments," Corey replied.
In a state with a rate of sexual assault 2 1/2 times the national average — where more than half of those assaults involve Native victims — many Alaskans, women in particular, saw the laws and the justice system failing them. Especially given a white attacker and a Native victim.
Schneider's sentence also came amid news of unrelated charges against a Kotzebue man in the shocking kidnapping, sexual assault and murder of a 10-year-old Native girl earlier this month, as well as unrest about recent changes to state law that some feel have made Alaska criminal law too soft. Some have connected the Schneider case, the Kotzebue murder and the #MeToo movement to the greater, persistent issue of violence against women in Alaska.
Schneider's sentence was consistent with state law, but what many Alaskans saw in that TV news report was a court hearing that seemed disturbingly routine and cordial.
Williams said the night she saw the KTVA story, she immediately went online and discovered that Corey's six-year term on the Superior Court was up for a retention vote this November.
"Ultimately, it is the judge who's responsible, because he's responsible for who walks out of court, and in this case we really think he messed up," Williams said. "I think there's a very real sense of fear. I think it's a fear that we live with as women all the time. I don't think that's anything new. We grow up with it, and I think this is another example. I would say there's also a sense of rage."
John Skidmore, who heads the Department of Law's Criminal Division, said he understands the anger.
"I find the facts horrendous, and I'm upset that this is the best that we can do," Skidmore said. "I agree with them. I have a wife, and I've discussed this case with my wife. I have two small girls. ... I would be truly horrified if this had occurred to them in the same way that it happened to the victim in this case. It wouldn't have changed the outcome that we could've achieved, because the law needs to be fixed. But I'd be outraged by that."
Skidmore said the facts, though, did not support the kidnapping charge, because the victim willingly got into Schneider's vehicle. Prosecutors were also unable to reach the victim to follow up on that and other issues ahead of the plea deal. Skidmore said that left the next highest charge, assault, though the crime did not fit the legal definition of sexual assault.
As it turns out, harassment by contact with bodily fluids — even when that fluid is semen — is not currently considered a sex crime in Alaska. That's something Alaskans, including all three candidates running for governor, say they want to change.
Current guidelines restricted Schneider's sentence to two years, and that's what the judge imposed, at the risk of having it overturned on appeal.
Schneider agreed to sex offender treatment, even though he was not — to the surprise of many — charged with a sex crime.
Skidmore said the suspended time was necessary because prosecutors had been successful in negotiating that condition and needed the threat of more jail time to enforce it.
"Those are conditions the judge would not have been authorized to impose if we had not gotten the defendant to agree to them, and that's significant," Skidmore said. "Sex offender treatment is not a small thing and is clearly needed in this case."
Skidmore echoed Gov. Bill Walker — the incumbent running for re-election and, in many respects, Skidmore's boss — in saying he thought the laws needed to be tougher. He said he hoped Alaskans would push for that.
Keeley Olson, the director of Standing Together Against Rape, a sexual trauma awareness and response center, said she had seen a lot of "righteous rage" online and wondered whether the Schneider case would be a catalyst for real change.
But Olson said the Schneider plea deal seemed especially outrageous.
"This is the best that we could do? For someone who was subjected to this level of violence and could've been killed? It's tragic," she said.
Known as STAR, the response center sees more than 1,200 victims a year, and Olson said requests for its services have been skyrocketing.
"If the system isn't going to respond, then we have to do something. And we're fed up. Enough is enough," Olson said.
As for Corey, the Alaska Judicial Council's recommendation that voters retain him still stands, though it was issued before Schneider's plea deal.
The Judicial Council's executive director, Susanne DiPietro, said any changes in that recommendation would have to come from the council members themselves. The recommendations are based on surveys and other research of the judge's entire six-year term, and DiPietro said voters interested in this case should consider that.
"When we think about our own job performances, would we like to be judged on one thing that we did on one day," DiPietro said, "or would we feel that it might be a little more fair or relevant to be judged on our complete performance?"
The opposition to Corey's retention could be a real threat because while many voters skip that part of their ballot, a few hundred "no" votes could result in Corey's nonretention.
The Facebook group formed to fight Corey's retention grew quickly from a couple of hundred to more than 3,500 members, at last check. Members held an organizing session for and are planning at least one public rally. They also filed formal paperwork to form an election committee.
Williams, the organizer, said she understands that the judge was sentencing Schneider under the guidelines for the one criminal count in front of him. But if people are angry, Williams said, the judges are the ones they can directly affect.
"You know, they're already saying that they're outraged," she said. "I'm just saying, 'Hey. There's something tangible that you can do, and that's just vote on it.' "
Williams added that she thinks the laws should be tougher and prosecutors should feel pressure, too.
"That's an incomplete answer," she said. "I think the laws are definitely a problem here in Alaska. But the judge's hands weren't tied. He could've done something different."