Plea bargain for Haseltine not likely to change

It's likely Robert Haseltine's child pornography case will be put to rest, despite revelations that the judge lacked relevant information on the former school social worker prior to sentencing.

It's likely Robert Haseltine's child pornography case will be put to rest, despite revelations that the judge lacked relevant information on the former school social worker prior to sentencing.

In a highly unusual move, Clay County District Judge Galen Vaa on Thursday released a four-page letter saying his sentence may have been different had Vaa known about a Fargo investigation that found 26 separate child pornography images on Haseltine's home computer.

Haseltine, 50, who pleaded guilty to one count of disseminating child pornography in Clay County, received a suspended imposition of sentence, meaning in three years it will go on his record as a misdemeanor rather than a felony.

He also was sentenced to six months of home monitoring and received a $1,000 fine.

Although Clay County Attorney Ken Kohler - in his own statement released Friday - acknowledged he should have informed Vaa of the Fargo findings, none of this will likely change the outcome of the case.


Under a plea deal, Cass County authorities agreed not to prosecute Haseltine in exchange for his guilty plea.

Area legal scholars say such a deal is binding.

Richard Frase, a University of Minnesota Law School professor, says a plea bargain is somewhat like a contract. If it's violated, a person generally has the option to either back out entirely or start the process over again.

In a criminal case, that means the defendant would move to dismiss the charge, even if he already was sentenced, or withdraw the guilty plea made under the violated agreement, Frase said.

In fact, he said the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled plea agreements shouldn't be changed. In a case in the 1960s, the high court didn't say what should happen if a plea deal is changed, "but they did pretty strongly indicate that defendants have a right to get the benefit of their bargain."

In that case, a prosecutor made a plea deal with a defendant and another prosecutor tried to file additional charges, Frase said. The Supreme Court found the second set of charges violated the plea deal.

University of North Dakota law professor Bruce Bohlman agreed it would be difficult now for either Cass County or the federal government to prosecute Haseltine.

"It's a sad situation in many different ways, but it's done," said Bohlman, a retired Grand Forks County judge.


Assistant U.S. Attorney Lynn Jordheim said federal officials' decision not to prosecute Haseltine was not part of any plea deal. Rather, federal prosecutors simply decided there wasn't enough evidence for a prosecution, Jordheim said.

Cass County State's Attorney Birch Burdick could not be reached for comment Friday but said in the aftermath of Haseltine's sentencing that he intended to stand by his word that he wouldn't prosecute.

At the same time, Burdick said he hoped Haseltine would have gotten a more severe sentence.

Under North Dakota law, a first offense for possessing child pornography is a class A misdemeanor and subsequent offenses are class C felonies.

But since Minnesota's law makes it a felony, everyone agreed it should be prosecuted there, U.S. Attorney Drew Wrigley said Friday.

Bohlman said it's not unusual for other jurisdictions not to prosecute if one jurisdiction has the best case.

"That's part of the whole plea bargain process," he said.

Some would like to see it disappear, but "as a practical matter, plea bargaining has been here for a long time and it will be here for a long time to come," Bohlman said. "That's the way it's done in order to keep these things moving along."


He noted that a plea bargain is only really in effect once the judge accepts it, which he doesn't have to do.

Had Vaa rejected the deal in Haseltine's case, the defendant would have had the option of either letting the case go to trial or allowing the judge to sentence him without trial, although the latter is highly unlikely.

According to Wrigley, judges can take plea agreements as a recommendation and often use letters written to the court as a factor in sentencing.

That was the situation with Haseltine.

Vaa said he considered 39 letters of support he received from Haseltine's friends and co-workers in formulating the sentence. Those letters indicated Haseltine was a good citizen with a lack of criminal history and requested a lenient sentence, Vaa wrote.

Wrigley said people should understand that letters to the court can influence judges' opinions greatly and should understand a case before writing a letter.

"I don't have any sympathy for people who say it's embarrassing," Wrigley said. "Why would you write a letter if you don't have all the facts."

In addition, Wrigley said he hopes North Dakota lawmakers address the state's laws to change possessing child pornography from a misdemeanor to a felony.


Haseltine, who lives in Fargo, was a social worker at Ellen Hopkins and Robert Asp elementary schools in Moorhead until his resignation last month.

Under his sentence, he also is barred from any job working with children, from having the Internet in his home and from having unsupervised contact with people under 18, except for his daughter.

He was put on supervised probation, and ordered to register as a predatory offender and undergo counseling.

(Tom Pantera writes for The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead, a Forum Communications Co. newspaper. Forum reporter Steven P. Wagner contributed to this story)

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