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Appeals court upholds probation sentence for man who repeatedly raped 15-year-old relative

Michael John Hill

ST. PAUL — A Ramsey County District judge did not abuse his authority when he went against a prosecutor’s protests and sentenced a man convicted of repeatedly raping a 15-year-old relative to probation, according to a higher court’s findings.

The Minnesota Court of Appeals cited the “broad discretion” the law affords district court judges in determining sentences as a key reason it ultimately affirmed the lower court’s ruling, according to a recent opinion issued by the court.

The finding was a blow to the Ramsey County Attorney’s Office, which filed an appeal in the case this past summer in hopes of eventually securing a longer sentence for Michael John Hill’s sex crime.

The office declined Friday to comment on the decision. It said it still hadn’t decided if it intended to appeal to the Minnesota Supreme Court. It has 30 days to do so.

The 28-year-old married Hastings father was convicted of one count of first-degree criminal sexual conduct after pleading guilty last winter to repeatedly sexually assaulting an underage relative, court records say.

Ramsey County District Judge Stephen Smith subsequently sentenced Hill in April to probation, despite pleas from the state prosecutor that the sentence was far too light for such a serious crime.

The presumptive prison sentence for first-degree sexual assault is 12 years.

At the time, Smith said he based his decision on Hill’s attorney’s arguments that his client’s clean criminal record, family support, remorse and voluntary enrollment in a sex-offender program made him suitable for supervised release.

Particular amenability to probation is a compelling enough reason to depart from sentencing guidelines, the Court of Appeals stated in its opinion, adding that Smith correctly applied the criteria needed to prove Hill fit the description.

“Although we may not have reached the same conclusion as the district court, our standard of review compels us to find that the district court did not abuse its discretion,” the higher court wrote.

The court further noted that while Hill and the victim had an “extensive sexual relationship,” it could not find that “the sentence was inappropriate or disproportionate to the severity of the offense.”

ELICIT CONVERSATIONS BECOME REPEATED ASSAULTS

Hill’s interaction with the girl started with elicit conversations and turned sexual about two months after she turned 15, she later told authorities. Hill was 25 at the time.

The first assault took place in May of 2015 at her parents’ house after she said Hill “repeatedly pestered her to have sex and she finally gave in,” legal documents say.

Then it started happening routinely, with both the girl and Hill later telling authorities they eventually developed feelings for each other, according to court records.

The conduct was exposed after the girl’s parents found cell phones Hill had given her and called law enforcement. Hill gave her the phones so he could reach her directly.

STATE: PUNISHMENT DIDN’T FIT THE CRIME

In its request for an appeal, Assistant Ramsey County Attorney Thomas Ragatz argued that probation was a far cry from the proper punishment for a crime that involved repeated sexual assaults of a minor.

“At least one hundred rapes of a 15-year-old girl by a 25-year-old man, with whom the victim had a significant relationship, requires more than zero days in prison and four days in jail,” Ragatz wrote in the state’s brief.

DEFENSE: SENTENCE WAS APPROPRIATE

Hill’s defense attorney, Charles Clippert, countered in his response that the judge’s decision was reasoned and fair.

District court judges are given “broad discretion” in discerning sentences for a reason, Clippert wrote, adding that each case and defendant is unique and that case law supports departing from sentencing guidelines when certain factors are present.

And they were there for his client, he continued, adding that in addition to his client’s clean record, he admitted what he’d done to investigators and showed remorse for his actions.

Hill also started an outpatient sex-offender treatment program before he was court-ordered to do so, he said.

“The district court properly considered, weighed and balance(d) all the information presented to him, including the seriousness of the offense,” Clippert wrote. “The process is working, and Hill is progressing through treatment.”

STAYED SENTENCE AND PROBATION

Hill’s probation comes with terms.

He has to continue attending sex-offender treatment, for example, abstain from drugs and alcohol, register as a sex offender and have no contact with girls under 18 without prior permission.

If he fails to comply, he’ll head to prison for 12 years. He also spent four days in jail.

When announcing the sentence last spring, Smith said probation was “beneficial” for all involved.

“For someone such as Mr. Hill, who has no criminal record, who has expressed his remorse and accepted responsibility here, it does strike me that this willingness to engage in a rigorous sex offender program at the end of the day not only is beneficial for him but for his family members and for the rest of us in society.”

Neither Smith, nor Hill’s attorney, responded to requests for comment about the higher court’s decision.

Hill could not be reached.

The executive director of the Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault said judges need legal latitude in their decision-making, but that it should be “reasoned, thoughtful and victim-focused.”

“In this particular case we have a level of concern with the degree of discretion used,” Teri Walker McLaughlin said.