THE BUZZ: Silence No More

By on August 9, 2017

Defendant takes plea bargain in lengthy high school sexual assault case.

JACKSON HOLE, WY – The plea deal in a two and a half year sexual assault case isn’t the one she wanted, but Claire Andrews is relieved to finally be able to come out of the shadows with her story. “Now every single thing is public. That’s so huge for me,” Andrews said. “It’s been so hard not to be able to talk about what happened to me openly.”

Jamison Daniel plead “guilty under Alford” to sexual assault in the third-degree Tuesday morning. District court judge Timothy Day explained to the defendant that such a plea meant he was “denying guilt, but seeking to obtain benefits of the plea bargain.”

In other words, Daniel was not admitting guilt, but there is enough “strong evidence of factual guilt” against him that might lead to a guilty verdict if he were tried in court.

With the Alford plea, Daniel avoids sentencing and a potential 15 years in prison while he serves five years of supervised probation. If at any point he violates his probation, he is subject to conviction and the associated maximum penalties: up to 15 years plus $10,000 in fines.

At the end of his probation, if Day determines Daniel has been successfully rehabilitated, he will drop the sentence. Otherwise, he could still convict Daniel of sexual assault in the third degree. In essence, Day said, this agreement is a “withholding of conviction.”

But Beckett Hinckley, the prosecuting attorney representing the state of Wyoming, says the plea is essentially a guilty one. It just strips Daniel of his right to defend himself to the judge.  “If [Daniel] had said, ‘Your honor, I plead guilty,’ he would have then minimized it,” Beckett said. “In order for me to assure the record was clear, I said I don’t want him saying a word. I’m going to do it.”

The obvious setback, Hinckley noted, is that now Daniel walks free for at least five years. But supervised probation, he said, is challenging, and the stakes of violating it are high.

“Supervised probation is not fun,” Hinckley said. “If he gets caught, he just turned a third degree sexual assault into a 15-year prison sentence.”

Case in point

On January 6, 2015, Andrews reported to sheriff deputy Matt Carr that she had been sexually assaulted at a New Years Eve party. She was 17, and a senior at Jackson Hole High School. She alleged that she had been intoxicated from drinking alcohol “to a degree which rendered her physically helpless” and unable to consent, according to the affidavit. DNA collected from a semen sample found on the pants she was wearing the next day matched Daniel’s, but when Carr interviewed him, he denied any physical contact with her.

That denial, Hinckley said, was the final nail in the coffin of evidence against him. If instead Daniel had claimed he had consensual sex with Andrews, it might have turned into a battle of “he said, she said,” as these cases often do, Hinckley said. But his denial “shows he was lying about it.”

A big part of Daniel’s plea included reducing the charge from sexual assault in the first degree, to sexual assault in the third degree. Both are felonies, but sexual assault in the third degree concedes that sexual contact did not cause “serious bodily injury to the victim.” The maximum penalty is 15 years in prison, instead of 50 in the first degree.

“I was all sorts of upset about that this morning,” Andrews told PJH after Tuesday’s trial. “The difference between third degree and first degree is huge. They’re still serious, but it’s huge.”

Still, Andrews and her mother Barbara Andrews said they were ready to accept the plea if only to bring some closure to the past two and a half years. “Claire has definitely suffered and deteriorated over this time,” Barbara said. “We were willing to make serious concessions.”

Right to remain silent

Two and a half years in the criminal justice system took its toll, Andrews said. People told her it would be hard, and that she would be dragged through the weeds, and indeed she was. In August of 2015, when the case was still in juvenile court, defending attorney Richard Mulligan argued that the assault “didn’t cause any personal injury” because Andrews was not a virgin at the time.

“It was absolutely mortifying to have something like that brought up that shouldn’t have been brought up in the first place,” Andrews said. “Your sexual history doesn’t matter. It shouldn’t matter.”

Andrews still struggles to come to terms with what happened. She still often tries to blame herself, “despite the act that a majority of people will tell me it wasn’t my fault.”

“As hard as I’ve tried this whole time to not dwell on what happened, it’s impossible not to when everything in your daily life is affected by it,” Andrews said. “My mental health, my physical health, my learning abilities, everything.”

Part of what took the case so long is that Daniels and Andrews were both minors—17—at the time of the alleged assault. Daniels was initially charged in adult court, but the case was transferred to juvenile court that summer and later dismissed. Hinckley and Andrews re-filed in adult court this spring, and “that’s where we ended up today,” Hinckley said.

For all that time, Andrews said she had to remain relatively silent about what had happened to her to avoid jeopardizing the case. She could talk about it among close friends and family, or anonymously to the press, which indeed she did just last month in PJH’s article “It Happens Here.” But her story could not officially enter the public dialogue until Monday, and now she is “ready for people to be able to talk about it.”
It was hard enough coming forward in the first place, Andrews said. But coming forward only to remain silent for two and a half years was even worse. It felt like she was pulling herself out of the dirt, “just to be drug through the dirt again. And then not to be able to clean myself off, just having to stay covered—it sucked.”

Hinckley admits the criminal justice system is unkind to victims. It’s designed to protect the rights of the defendant—and rightfully so, he said. But along the way, “it can be pretty abusive to the victim, even though it shouldn’t be.” Hinckley says he warns every client, every victim, of the journey ahead of them.

Mulligan declined to comment on the outcome of the arraignment to protect his client—he never comments on pending cases, he said—but he confirmed that Daniel and his probation officer have 45 days to finalize a pre-sentence report that will be provided to both the defending and the prosecuting attorneys. Once that report is complete, Day will set a sentencing date “within a couple days.” It generally takes about two months from plea to sentence, Mulligan said.

Meanwhile, Andrews is ready for the sentence hearing. And to move on with her life when it’s over. She couldn’t attend Tuesday’s arraignment because she’s recovering from a broken collarbone, but she will be at the sentencing, and she will speak up.

“I want [Daniel] to hear it from me, what he’s done to me,” Andrews said.

She also hopes that other women are inspired to come forward with their stories. “I wouldn’t still be fighting if I hadn’t believed it was going to help someone,” Andrews said. “That’s my goal. It’s been a long, long process, and it’s taken getting re-victimized multiple times. But we’re almost there.” PJH

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