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Defense argues victim in Grand Forks teacher sex case was ‘precocious,’ encouraged relationship

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James Whalen, left, and his layer Robert Hoy listen as Judge John Thelen reads Whalen's sentence in Grand Forks on Monday, April 24, 2017. (Joshua Komer / Grand Forks Herald)2 / 3
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James Patrick Whalen quietly rocked back and forth Monday in his chair as attorneys discussed how much time he should serve for having sex with one of his students.

Grand Forks District Judge John Thelen ordered the former Grand Forks Central High School teacher to spend almost two years in jail, but not before the defense said the victim was a “precocious teenager” who “induced and facilitated” the relationship.

“The statutes are intended to protect minors from being preyed upon by adults, but there are no protections for the adult pursued by a precocious and sexually experienced 17 year old,” Whalen’s attorney, Robert Hoy, argued in court documents as he asked that Whalen serve only one year in jail.

“I agree ... that he is the adult and she is incapable of consent by statute, and he is at fault for that,” Hoy argued in court. “The law does not say that she is incapable of facilitating it or encouraging it or asking for it.”

Whalen could have faced up to 25 years in prison, but because he pleaded guilty to three Class C felonies -- two corruption or solicitation of a minor charges and one sexual assault charge -- he was given a much lighter sentence -- four years at the Grand Forks County Correctional Center with two years suspended. A Class B felony charge of corruption solicitation of a minor was dismissed.

He will have to register as a sex offender and will be placed on five years of probation.

Whalen was accused in Grand Forks District Court of having sex with a student on multiple occasions, including at Central High School. He also faced a sex crime charge in Polk County, but that case was dismissed after he pleaded guilty in Grand Forks County.

It’s illegal in North Dakota for an adult to have sex with a minor under the age of 15, and that law extends to minors older than 15 years old if the adult is at least 22 years old.

The victim was 16 years old when the sexual acts began in the winter of 2015-16. The Herald does not identify victims of sex crimes unless they wish to make their name public.

A 21-page sentencing memorandum written by Hoy attempted to explain Whalen’s actions. Hoy explained Whalen “did not cause or threaten serious harm” and that the defendant “wanted the best” for the victim.

“Jim should have been more forceful in rejecting a physical relationship with (the victim), but that is certainly not the whole story,” Hoy wrote, adding the victim encouraged Whalen into sexual acts.

During the nearly 90-minute hearing, prosecutor Haley Wamstad said it was “completely unacceptable” that the defense placed blame on the victim, stating he was a teacher responsible for mentoring and protecting children. She asked that Whalen serve three years in prison, saying others who faced sex crimes but were not teachers faced much harsher sentences.

“There is something wrong with our culture that defense counsel would even think it is acceptable to blame a child for a crime in which she was the victim,” she said.

“Her sexual experience, or lack thereof, shouldn’t even be permitted to be discussed in the public record or a public courtroom,” Wamstad added.

Wamstad said Whalen caused the victim serious psychological harm and continues to cause her anguish. The victim said in an impact statement she had to deal with online victim-blaming, adding she felt exposed and abandoned.

“She’s an A student, but needed a tutor to keep her up to speed as a result of this incident,” Wamstad said. “She has experienced being outcast by her friends at school and harsh comments by others on social media.”

Hoy noted Whalen was an upstanding teacher that doesn’t have a criminal history, arguing other teachers in similar situations were given less time. Hoy pointed to one of his past clients, former Bottineau teacher Marissa Deslauriers, who was ordered to serve seven weeks in jail and was not required to register as a sex offender after she was accused in 2015 of having sex with high school students.

The defense argued a harsh sentence would bring undue hardship if Whalen wasn’t able to provide for his family, adding he has already suffered by losing his teaching license, his reputation and the ability to financially support his children.

But Wamstad said the court should send a message that these types of offenses will not be tolerated.

“He places the blame for the repercussions of his conduct on the victim, the media and the ‘overly harsh’ plea agreement entered between the state and the defendant,” Wamstad said.

Whalen apologized to his family as well as the victim and her family, adding he can’t fix what he had done but that he hopes they find peace and happiness. He said he has embarrassed the school at which he taught, calling his former job his life.

“I put them in such a bad place,” he said. “I wish it were known that, while I may be a black mark with that institution, the school itself … you will not find a better quality place of education.

“While I deserve the just consequences for all of this, I ask that the punishment can somehow be set up or structured so I can still support my family,” he said as he wiped away tears.

    April Baumgarten

    April Baumgarten joined the Grand Forks Herald May 19, 2015, and covers crime and education. She grew up on a ranch 10 miles southeast of Belfield, where her family raises registered Hereford cattle. She double majored in communications and history/political science at Jamestown (N.D.) College, now known as University of Jamestown. During her time at the college, she worked as a reporter and editor-in-chief for the university's newspaper, The Collegian. Baumgarten previously worked for The Dickinson Press as a city government and energy reporter in 2011 before becoming the editor of the Hazen Star and Center Republican. She then returned to The Press as a news editor, where she helped lead an award-winning newsroom in recording the historical oil boom.

    Have a story idea? Contact Baumgarten at 701-780-1248.

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