Those behind the effort to remove the judge who approved the no-jail sentence for a shocking kidnapping and sexual assault never argued that getting him off the bench would be the silver bullet for ensuring victims are fairly represented.
For them, it was about sending a message opposing his decision to accept the plea and about forcing the Legislature into action to close the loopholes that allowed Justin Schneider to escape without serving time in prison or registering as a sex offender. A first step in many.
But to hear now-former Judge Michael Corey’s side of the story, as he presented it to the Senate Finance Committee on Monday, you’d think they were motivated by the spotlight.
“In my situation, I followed the law as it was as I was required by my oath, and quite frankly I was crucified for it,” he said. “It’s pretty clear that there are segments of the population who exploit social media without any regard for accuracy or without any regard to who they hurt in the process of seeking some measure of political relevance. It seems to me that if I was the problem back then, there would be no need to change the law. Well the answer to that I was not the problem, the law was the problem.”
Corey was testifying in support of Senate Bill 12, a bill that seeks to close many of the loopholes raised in the sentencing of Schneider—such as unwanted contact with semen not being recognized as a sex offense or allowing offenders to apply time spent on electronic monitoring while awaiting the outcome of the legal process to apply it to a sentence.
“If that had been a portion of a definition of sexual contact prior to Justin Schneider’s activities, there is no way this plea agreement would have been sought by the prosecutor,” Corey said of the changes proposed to the contact with semen. “Had this law read this way back then, there’s no way this plea arrangement would have been suggested.”
He later called the plea deal “horrible,” but said he would have been out of line to say that as a judge.
Corey was defeated by voters in his retention vote in the 2018 elections after a wave of public backlash to the plea deal, which the prosecutor described as Schneider’s “one free pass.”
Corey has been involved in the drafting of the bill, and bill sponsor Sen. Peter Micciche credits him for coming up with a section that would encourage the system to make more meaningful efforts to contact the victim. Much of the opposition to the Schneider plea deal was the failure to contact the victim before the plea deal was reached (as well as a description of the plea by the prosecutor as Schneider’s “one free pass”).
His involvement has improved the bill, but it also gave him opportunities, like Monday’s hearing, to recast his involvement—and responsibility—in the outcome of the case. His hands were tied by the law, he said.
It’s a point that has found plenty of support, but not from all in the legal world.
“The judge didn’t have to accept the sentence the parties proposed,” wrote Val Van Brocklin, a former state and federal prosecutor in Alaska, in the pages of the Anchorage Daily News’ editorial section in the run up to the election. “He could have rejected it as too lenient, which would have entitled Schneider to withdraw his plea. The prosecutor would have then been negotiating with the leverage that the court was not going to accept no jail. The judge could’ve deferred sentencing and ordered a pre-sentence report.”
Sen. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage, also countered Corey’s narrative that he did everything by the book. Wielechowski pointed out details about the kidnapping charge—that the woman was picked up by Schneider and took her to a different place than he told her, where he tackled and strangled her—adding “this clearly meets the definition of kidnapping.”
“What would have happened if you had rejected the plea agreement?” Wielechowski asked.
Corey acknowledged that the state would have likely pursued the kidnapping and assault charges in court but said he didn’t know for sure. He also pushed back against this kind of reviewing of the case, taking another shot at the group representing her cause.
“In this case, everybody talks about this particular victim and how people took up her cause, well you notice that she still hasn’t come forward and even the civil lawsuit she brought, she brings as Jane Doe,” he said, noting that he respected her right to do so. “But what does that tell you about how anxious that individual was to take the stand and talk about activities in mixed company that she might never have considered and that’s before you get to cross examination. So, I think that if you want to know the particulars and you want to be critical of the charges that were pursued or you want to reexamine that, I think that requires a sit-down with the prosecutor’s department … that cut the deal and then talk to them about why they did what they did.”
That group, No More Free Passes, took issue with his statement above, issuing the following response on Facebook (We’d add direct links, but Facebook is being terrible today):
“As a reminder, the survivor gave physical evidence, picked Schneider out in a line up, testified at grand jury, and testified at the bail hearing begging for Schneider to not be released,” wrote a post by the group, which is run by siblings Elizabeth and Isaac Williams. “We are saddened that Mr. Corey used his testimony to criticize a survivor who did everything right. Comments like his reinforce the myth that some survivors deserve justice more than others.”
The group returned the following day with another post to set the record straight on Corey’s suggestion that the group had adopted the victim’s case without input.
“This movement is run with the blessing and the input of the survivor. She has veto power over everything we post/do,” the group wrote. “If there ever comes a day where she changes her mind and doesn’t want her story broadcasted to effect change, then we will shut down this page and you will not hear from us again.”
No More Free passes has organized a letter writing campaign in support of Senate Bill 12 with a workshop scheduled for noon March 23 at the Writer’s Block Bookstore and Cafe.