Man back to court in precedent-setting case

Supreme Court decision puts man back in Alpena courtroom for third time

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ALPENA — Some sexual assault victims now have more time to pursue justice because of a decision this month by the Michigan Supreme Court.

An Alpena court case has set a precedent for Michigan courts to follow, as the state Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal of a Michigan Court of Appeals decision that sent a man back to face a jury for a third time in an Alpena courtroom.

Joel James, convicted in 2016 of criminal sexual assault in Alpena’s 26th Circuit Court, is the subject of recent ponderings about the reach of the state’s statute of limitations on people who live outside the state’s borders.

In 2013, James was extradited from Alaska, where he was living and working for construction companies, and charged with sexually assaulting three Alpena minors in the 1990s. At trial, a jury found him not guilty of assaulting the first alleged victim but were deadlocked as to the other charges.

The News does not identify victims of sexual assault.

In a subsequent trial, James was found guilty of sexual conduct against the second victim, for which he was sentenced to prison.

In the second trial, the jury once again deadlocked in regard to the third victim, who was 13 and 14 years old at the time she alleges to have been assaulted.

Before a third trial could be held, defense attorney Dan White filed a motion to dismiss the charges, saying that the state’s statute of limitations had been exceeded — an argument which was eventually to be examined by the Michigan Court of Appeals.

According to Michigan law, sexual assault victims have 10 years to report an offense, or until they are 21 years old, whichever is later. For victims younger than 18, the limitation has recently been extended to 15 years or until the victim is 28. First-degree criminal sexual conduct charges have no statute of limitations.

In the case of James, the question that came before the courts was this: When does the clock start?

James lived in Alaska from the early 1990s to 2013, but he made periodic trips to Alpena, where he owned property. During that time, he allegedly assaulted the three victims on separate occasions, with the 10-year statute of limitations expiring for the last victim in 2006 and 2007. The alleged crimes were not revealed until 2012.

By state law, a defendant’s time spent living out of state is “tolled,” or not counted toward the statute of limitations.

Following that standard, James’s years living in Alaska would not count toward the 10 years in which his alleged victims could report their assaults.

But James’ attorneys argued that standard should not apply to their client.

During the time he lived in Alaska, James was not charged with anything and was therefore not a suspect or under investigation. His attorney says that meant that he was not liable to the tolling provision of the statute of limitations.

In all previous Michigan cases involving tolling, the defendant had already been accused of a crime before leaving the state, according to court records.

Because the defendant was not charged with any wrongdoing while he lived in Alaska, following what precedent had been established, the defense’s motion was granted in Circuit Court, and the case against James in regard to the third victim was dismissed.

The Michigan Court of Appeals disagreed with that ruling, a decision seconded last week by the Michigan Supreme Court when it refused to hear a further appeal.

The Alpena case will now be used as a precedent to be quoted in other similar cases statewide in the future.

The authors of the Court of Appeals opinion, in the rationale for their decision, state that “nowhere in the statute is there a requirement that the party charged has to have been an actual suspect in an identified crime” during the statute of limitations time period. Rejecting the opinion of local courts, the Court of Appeals declined to interpret the statute as implying that the tolling procedure applies only after an investigation has begun.

The opinion also argues that “the investigation, prosecution, and, indeed, the very discovery of previously unreported crimes” is made more possible when an accused individual is actually in the state, making a case for the importance of excluding non-resident time from the 10 or 15 years of the statute of limitations.

White, for the defense, disagreed with the opinion of the Court of Appeals in its implication that James’s time outside the state detracted from the state’s ability to investigate him.

“What difference did it make whether Joel James was in Alaska or had his tent pitched on the front lawn of the sheriff’s department?” White said. “James was not even a blip on anybody’s screen until after the statute of limitations ran.”

A third jury trial will be scheduled in the 26th Circuit Court, once again bringing an old case before a new set of eyes.

“We charged Mr. James back in 2013 and extradited him back from Alaska for a reason,” Alpena County Prosecutor Ed Black said. “We are not done.”

The defense has the opportunity to appeal the state court’s decision to the U.S. Supreme Court. That possibility has not been discarded, according to White.

Sentenced in 2016 to three to 25 years in prison, James is now out on parole and living in Lachine, according to the Michigan Sex Offender Registry.

Julie Riddle can be reached at 989-358-5693, jriddle@thealpenanews.com or on Twitter @jriddleX.