WITH VIDEO: Judge sentences Winfield to 9 months, says former teacher pursued sexual relationship with child
ALPENA — Former Alpena Public Schools teacher Heather Winfield left the Alpena County Courthouse in handcuffs Friday after a judge said she deliberately pursued a sexual relationship with a child.
Winfield will spend nine months in jail for accosting a child for immoral purposes.
A jury in September found the former teacher guilty of the charge during a three-week trial in which it acquitted her of sexually assaulting a former student when he was between 11 and 13 years old.
Judge Roy Hayes on Friday sentenced Winfield to five years’ probation and nine months’ incarceration, the maximum jail time recommended by the Michigan Department of Corrections.
Winfield will have to register as a sex offender for 25 years.
Check out the video below. Viewing on mobile? Turn your device horizontally for the best viewing experience. Story continues below the video.
Alpena County Prosecutor Cynthia Muszynski told The News she thanked the student, now 17, for bravery during the lengthy court case.
“We acknowledge how tumultuous this entire process has been for him, as well as this community,” Muszynski said. “Even though we were hoping the defendant would receive time in prison, we would like to thank Judge Hayes for taking over this important trial.”
Hayes, of Charlevoix, presided over the trial because a transition in Alpena judges after Winfield’s arrest meant no local judge was available to handle it.
Defense attorney Matt Wojda declined to comment on the sentencing.
In September, a jury considered three weeks’-worth of testimony regarding allegations that Winfield intentionally developed a sexual relationship with a troubled student in her special education classroom at Thunder Bay Junior High School.
The News does not identify survivors of sexual assault.
According to the student, Winfield plied him with expensive gifts and included him in her family life, ultimately leading to a sexual relationship that lasted for two years, until he told police about the relationship when he was 13.
Winfield denied the allegations, saying she erred in caring too much about the boy and crossing lines of appropriate behavior, but did not enter a sexual relationship with him.
The jury found evidence given at the trial insufficient to prove the alleged sexual encounters took place. They found Winfield guilty on a lesser charge of accosting a minor for immoral purposes, which carries a maximum four-year penalty for some offenders with prior high-severity felony convictions.
Before imposing sentence, Hayes said he rejected Winfield’s claim that she only wanted to help the student by building a relationship with him. He believed she deliberately preyed on the child with sexual intent, Hayes said.
“This defendant solicited and actively pursued a romantic relationship with a child,” Hayes said, calling the sexual abuse of children among the most serious of crimes.
Winfield’s attorneys argued for no jail time or house arrest only for their client, saying she poses no danger to the community and learned any lesson she needed to learn from a community that judged her guilty before her case even went to court.
Wojda compared Winfield’s desire to help the boy to a drug or gambling addiction, saying she compulsively made poor choices about her relationship with the child.
The jury, by their verdict, said Winfield crossed a line, but not a sexual one, Wojda said.
Winfield told the court she has lived as a social outcast since her arrest, which has cost her her career. Publicity about her case brought attention from national media outlets and death threats that made her afraid to go into public, she said.
She understood Hayes had to sentence her, but, “I just ask that the last two years be considered as part of that punishment,” she told the judge.
Two family members shared victim impact statements on behalf of the student, who was not present for sentencing. The victim’s grandmother, enumerating reasons she believes her grandson’s story of sexual abuse, said she worries Winfield will hurt more children.
“She needs some help, no doubt about it,” the grandmother said, asking Hayes to consider a stiff sentence. “But she also needs to spend some time locked up.”
Winfield will serve nine months in the Alpena County jail. Her five years’ probation includes restrictions on contact with children other than her own. She will register as a sex offender for 25 years.
Going beyond the Michigan Department of Corrections recommendation and sentencing Winfield to prison time after jurors acquitted her of sexual misconduct would violate decisions by Michigan higher courts, Hayes said.
Hayes rejected a request from the defense that Winfield be allowed time to speak to her children before officers escorted her to jail at the conclusion of Friday’s hearing.