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He raped a 15-year-old relative repeatedly, got probation. Case going to Minnesota Court of Appeals.

Michael John Hill

Michael Hill raped his 15-year-old female relative dozens of times.

But after his first-degree criminal sexual conduct conviction, a Ramsey County District judge — in a departure from sentencing guidelines — granted Hill a stayed sentence despite pleas from a state prosecutor who argued that repeatedly raping a minor warranted prison.

Assuming Hill abides by the terms of his probation, he will serve no prison time.

If he doesn’t, he’ll head to a state penitentiary for 12 years — the amount of time called for under state sentencing guidelines. Hill also must complete a sex-offender treatment program and register as a sex offender.

APPEAL

Characterizing Ramsey County District Judge Stephen Smith’s sentencing decision as an “abuse of discretion,” the Ramsey County attorney’s office is taking a rare step of appealing the case to the Minnesota Court of Appeals.

Ramsey County prosecutors are asking the higher court to send the case back to be sentenced in accordance with state sentencing guidelines.

“At least one hundred rapes of a 15-year-old girl by a 25-year-old man, with whom the victim had a significant relationship, requires more than zero days in prison and four days in jail,” Assistant Ramsey County Attorney, Thomas Ragatz, argued in the state’s brief.

In a separate filing, Ragatz pointed to what he defined as Hill’s “victim-blaming” as particularly problematic.

“In this awakened era of #MeToo, it is hard to see how anyone … could think this minimal sentence is proportional to the seriousness of Mr. Hill’s … crimes,” Ragatz wrote.

‘BROAD DISCRETION’

Hill’s defense attorney Charles Clippert argues the state’s argument isn’t credible and that it inappropriately asks the higher court to weigh in on an issue the district court is far better positioned to decide.

“The state is asking this court to place Hill in a state penitentiary without having seen Hill, his demeanor, or the remorse that the district court noted he showed,” Clippert wrote in his response brief.

District court judges are given “broad discretion” to decide sentencing for a reason, Clippert added, writing that case law supports departing from sentencing guidelines when certain factors are present.

And they were all there for his client, Clippert wrote, citing Hill’s age, clean criminal record, remorse, family support and willingness to enroll in a sex-offender treatment program before he was court ordered to do so as valid reasons for the judge’s decision.

“The district court properly considered, weighed and balance(d) all the information presented to him, including the seriousness of the offense,” Clippert wrote. “The process is working, and Hill is progressing through treatment.”

With the case pending, Smith declined to comment on the state’s assertion, saying only that he respects the appeals process.

“Our criminal justice system does allow for parties to appeal decisions that we (as judges) make and I have no qualms with parties appealing decisions that I make; that's why we have an Appellate Court,” Smith said. “We will have to allow the process to work its way through.”

Neither Hill nor his attorney responded to requests for comment.

CELLPHONES FOUND

Hill, who is now 27, began striking up sexually charged conversations with the relative about two months after her 15th birthday, she later told authorities.

The first sexual assault occurred in May of 2015 at the girl’s parents’ house after Hill “repeatedly pestered her to have sex and she finally gave in,” court documents say.

Then it started happening routinely, sometimes at her parents’ house, but most often at Hill’s residence after she got dropped off there under the guise that she was babysitting.

Over time, the girl told investigators she developed feelings for Hill, and that he told her he planned to leave his wife for her.

His conduct was discovered last January after her parents found the cellphones he gave her and reported him to law enforcement. Hill gave her the cellphones so he could reach her directly.

PLEADING GUILTY

The Ramsey County attorney’s office ultimately charged him with two counts of first-degree criminal sexual conduct with a victim under age 16.

In his interviews with police, Hill admitted to having sex with the girl, saying there was never any force involved and that part of him believed he may one day end up with her, court documents say.

He said the sexual encounters took place much less frequently than the girl reported, and added that he knew the conduct was wrong, “but he couldn’t control himself.”

Several months after he was charged, Hill wound up pleading guilty to one count of first-degree criminal sexual conduct last February. The second charge was dropped per the terms of the plea deal reached with the state, which didn’t include any agreement on a presumptive sentence.

Before his sentencing hearing two months later, he voluntarily enrolled in a sexual-offender treatment program at Project Pathfinder.

The father of one, who works full time as an electrician, Hill struggled to articulate in his psychosexual evaluation with Project Pathfinder why a minor couldn’t consent to sex with an adult or what ramifications the child might suffer for it, according to the report filed with the court.

The therapist ultimately found that Hill had an above-average IQ with the ability to “benefit from a therapeutic setting” and wrote a letter to the court advising that he was a good candidate for a structured, outpatient sex-offender treatment program.

‘HOW WE MOVE FORWARD’

His attorney at the time, Jack Rice, pointed to that as one of the reasons Smith should sentence Hill to probation, rather then send the young father to prison.

Additionally, he reminded Smith that Hill’s behavior will be monitored through the courts and that he would be registered as a sex offender.

“Does (probation) fix what happened to this poor young woman? No, it does not. It doesn’t fix her. And we understand that. But what this is about right now is the balance of what we can do for society, what we can do for her, what we can do for him, and how we move forward,” Rice said during the sentencing hearing.

Assistant Ramsey County Attorney Somah Yarney told Smith during the hearing that there was no basis for making an exception for Hill, stating that his inability to comprehend why his actions were wrong was “extremely scary.”

“If he had just had sex with her one time, that would be a violation of the statute. He did it over a hundred times in an extremely deceptive way,” Yarney argued.

Smith sided with Rice, explaining at the time that prison didn’t seem to be the right consequence for Hill.

“For someone such as Mr. Hill, who has no criminal record, who has expressed his remorse and accepted responsibility here, it does strike me that this willingness to engage in a rigorous sex offender program at the end of the day not only is beneficial for him but for his family members and for the rest of us in society,” Smith said.

AN UNUSUAL DEPARTURE

It’s unusual for judges to depart from state sentencing guidelines in sexual-assault cases, particularly when they involve first-degree offenses.

In 2016, district court judges across the Minnesota granted defendants stayed sentences for sex crimes that state guidelines recommend prison terms 24 percent of the time, according to the Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission 2016 sentencing practice report.

That frequency dropd to 14 percent for first-degree criminal sexual convictions that involved penetration, such as the one Hill admitted in court to committing.

FEW SEX ASSAULT CASES APPEALED

The rates for first-degree sex crimes were lower.

In the majority of departures, the decision was agreed to by the involved parties as part of a plea negotiation, making Hill’s sentence unique, as neither the county attorney nor the involved probation officer were on board with Smith’s sentencing decision.

The Ramsey County attorney’s office’s decision to appeal the sentence is even more unusual.

Only about 1 or 2 percent of sex-assault cases result in an appeal of the sentence, according to the commission’s 2016 report.

TOUGH WINS

The few cases that are appealed based on sentences are tough wins for the state, said Washington County Attorney Pete Orput.

“The (sentencing) guidelines are guidelines; They aren’t firm,” Orput said. “We are all encouraged to use them but a judge may depart if a judge finds someone is particularly amenable to probation and that is often enough of a reason for us not to get an appeal, no matter how strongly we disagree.”

Even with the odds against them, Orput said it’s still important for prosecutors to ask the higher court to intervene in cases they deem necessary.

The Ramsey County attorney’s office declined to comment for this story with its appeal pending.

A panel of judges from the Court of Appeals will meet to discuss the case Sept. 27 before reaching its decision, which will be issued within 90 days from the meeting.

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