Minnesota prosecutor found guilty of sex crimes
DULUTH – A St. Louis County jury on Friday convicted Cook County Attorney Tim Scannell of two sex crimes.
Scannell, 48, lowered his head and appeared emotional as the verdicts were read on his two felony charges of fourth-degree criminal sexual conduct related to his relationship with a 17-year-old girl. Scannell’s family sat behind him in the courtroom, as they had all week.
Judge Shaun Floerke scheduled sentencing for Sept. 26. Scannell remains free on his own recognizance.
“I am pleased with the verdict,” special prosecutor Tom Heffelfinger told reporters on the steps of the courthouse. “Based on the evidence in this matter and Mr. Scannell’s position in the community, this was always a matter that was going to have to be resolved by a decision of a jury of his peers.”
Defense attorney Joe Tamburino said he and Scannell were disappointed, but respect the jury’s decision.
“I think it was a hard case to decide,” Tamburino said. “On one hand, everything that Mr. Scannell has suffered is just tremendous – it’s such a tragedy. On the other hand, being the elected county attorney in a position like that, in a county of only 5,000 people, makes this a very difficult case.”
Tamburino said it was too early to discuss Scannell’s future as county attorney. Scannell, who has been on medical leave since October as he continues to recover from a December 2011 courthouse shooting, is not seeking reelection this fall.
With only five months remaining in his term, it is unclear if efforts will be made to remove him. After the relationship first came to light, protesters began to meet weekly at the Cook County Courthouse to call for his resignation, as did several online groups.
Fourth-degree criminal sexual conduct carries a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison; however, state guidelines call for a stayed sentence and probation for offenders with no criminal history. Those conditions could include up to a year of local confinement.
Under state law, Scannell also will be required to register as a sex offender for 10 years.
Scannell will undergo a presentence investigation.
The victim testified that she had known Scannell since she was about 9 years old. She said their physical relationship began with kissing when she was 17. During August 2012, it progressed to touching of her breasts and buttocks, she testified. The girl said she refused several of his advances to engage in sexual intercourse.
Scannell admitted that he had a relationship with the girl, but denied that it ever progressed beyond kissing and an accidental touch of her breast.
Because the age of consent in Minnesota is typically 16, the jury was asked to decide whether Scannell was in a “position of authority” over the girl at the time of the acts.
Attorneys for both sides agreed after the verdict that the legal interpretation of “position of authority” was central to the case. Both said the law needs some tweaking for the sake of clarity.
Tamburino said Scannell’s defense was an “uphill battle” because the “position of authority” statute is open ended and does not provide a specific definition to jurors.
“The law is supposed to be precise,” he said. “When you deal with position of authority, it’s a very broad legal definition.”
Heffelfinger said he believes the verdict will send a message to Cook County, where concerns have been raised in recent years about a culture of older men pursuing underage girls.
The issue came to light in December 2012, after Scannell was shot four times by Daniel Schlienz, a man he had just prosecuted for a sex crime involving a minor girl. Schlienz died in jail of an illness before facing charges in the shooting.
“The tragedy of the Schlienz case I think overshadows the message that Mr. Schlienz’s conviction should’ve been sending to people who might prey on young women,” Heffelfinger said. “I was hoping that a guilty verdict (in the Scannell case) would send a message to the residents of Cook County that this kind of behavior will not be tolerated.”
Heffelfinger, a longtime prosecutor and former U.S. Attorney for Minnesota, said the Scannell case was particularly difficult to prosecute because Scannell himself is a prosecutor. “Prosecutors are at a higher level in my opinion and should be held to a higher level than other folks because they are given trust,” he said.
Tamburino said Scannell is remorseful for his relationship with the girl. Although the verdict was not in his favor, it will allow Scannell to continue his recovery, he said.
“Now that it’s ended, he can move forward,” Tamburino said. “This man, in December 2011, was shot four times, thought he was going to die, wound up being physically OK, went through a tremendous amount of depression and (post-traumatic stress), going through treatment centers. And within one year of that, he’s accused of a sex crime. You couldn’t write this.”