This was written by an Alaskan lawyer who wishes to remain anonymous
The plea bargain recently struck by Justin Schneider and the State of Alaska for the monstrous and disgusting thing he did to a woman has rightfully drawn anger and condemnation from the public. The story has been reported by national media outlets.
An ADN article on this story said, “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.”
The conclusion of his criminal case resulted in a two year sentence with one of those years suspended, the other served on electronic monitor while the case was pending, and felony probation. Notably missing from this deal was any amount of actual time in jail – or any punishment close to commensurate for his monstrous conduct.
What is odd about the massive media reaction is that if Schneider had been taken to trial and found not guilty, it is unlikely it would have gotten any media attention at all. We know this because sexual assault cases are lost at trial in Alaska on a not infrequent basis, even more are dismissed before trial or not charged – how many can we name?
It’s tempting to blame the judge or the prosecutor. When faced with injustice it is far more comforting to believe it to be the fault of corrupt individuals, rather than the product of our system and culture. Individuals can be fired, or recalled, but systems and cultures are complex and hard to change – and we are part of them. The harsh truth of Schneider case is that many of the very same people who are outraged by the news of the case would have found him not guilty if they had been called to sit on a jury in this case.
It’s a harsh truth that no one seems to want to talk about. I know that it is the truth because rapists like Schneider are found not guilty at trial on a regular basis across the State. This is not a theory, any former prosecutor could tell multiple stories of trials with horrifying allegations that resulted in not guilty verdicts. Unlike Mr. Schneider, those defendants were found not guilty by a jury of their peers, walked free without any punishment at all, and presumed innocent under the law.
Any time an attorney considers a potential plea or settlement agreement, whether in a criminal or civil case, their first consideration will be what their chances are of winning the trial. Despite this reality, the news coverage of the Schneider case has completely failed to examine this aspect in any way. When Brock Turner was given a lenient sentence for sexually assaulting a fellow student in a California case – a key part of the injustice was that it was a slam dunk case. The insultingly light sentence in that case was due entirely to a concern for his future and a minimization of the harm his assault caused. There is no indication that that was the case with the Schneider case. Rather the shockingly light sentence in this case is the direct result of a legal landscape and culture that makes convicting rapists at trial a rare occurrence.
The Schneider case is exactly the type that, when brought to trial, frequently results in a not guilty verdict. A case that relies primarily on the word of the victim. Words that are credible to anyone with even moderate knowledge of how sexual assault occurs, but which are often viewed by skepticism by jurors in the cold isolation of a court room. Even a moderate inquiry by the media would uncover many charging documents with factual allegations as bad or worse than the ones in the Schneider case where the end result of the case was that perpetrator walked away.
So what about SB 91? Did it impact this? Yes, but perhaps not as much as people might think. First, the sentencing range for Assault in the Second Degree would have been 1-3 years prior to SB 91. Further, Schneider would not have been able to receive credit for time he spent on ankle monitor while on bail prior to the passing of HB 15 in 2015. Prior to HB 15, he would have had to apply for ankle monitoring after being sentenced, and if he was approved he would have to serve the time on ankle monitor then – regardless of whether he had been on it while on bail. Minor changes, but it again illustrates that the claims that SB 91 would not impact violent crimes were not entirely accurate.
Regardless of the legal nuances in this case, the harsh truth is far too many people simply do not believe victims of sexual assault. People are uninformed about how assault victims react and are willing to view natural reactions as odd or suspicious. There are too many ways for defense attorneys to twist the words and actions of a victim into the appearance of dishonesty. Alaska has one of the highest rates of sexual assault in the country – and rapists walk away after juries hang or find them not guilty many times over any given year.
I don’t have any special knowledge about this case, beyond what has been reported. The facts certainly sound compelling, but the media has failed to examine how many of those facts rely almost entirely upon the word of one individual. It is exactly the type of situation a decent attorney can dismantle at trial.
This is the world within which prosecutors operate. Take a man like Schneider to trial and possibly watch him walk away, or make an agreement that at least gets something. Even more frequently, arrests are not made or charges are not brought because law enforcement knows that an allegation simply is not enough.
Facing this harsh reality forces us to look at ourselves. We, as members of the public, make up the juries that reach these decisions. It is much easier to refuse this reality and blame a judge or a prosecutor. The risk is that by placing the blame in all the wrong places, by refusing to acknowledge reality because that reality is unpleasant, we will fail to make the changes that need to be made to hold people like Schneider truly accountable for what he did.
We can do better. The media can do better. Sexual assault is far too often not taken seriously enough. When law enforcement, prosecutors, and judges fail to do their job we must respond angrily and force them to change. But when those individuals do their job the best they can with what we give them, we can’t blame them if we don’t like the results. We have to give them more.
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that credit for time served on an ankle monitor was a product of SB 91. This was due to a different bill, HB 15, passed in 2015. SB 91 was passed in 2016.