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CRIME: Sambursky appeals

A former UND student convicted in 2003 on a string of sexual assaults in Grand Forks is appealing to the North Dakota Supreme Court after a district court denied his bid for a new trial earlier this year.

A former UND student convicted in 2003 on a string of sexual assaults in Grand Forks is appealing to the North Dakota Supreme Court after a district court denied his bid for a new trial earlier this year.

Paul Sambursky says he had ineffective counsel when he accepted a plea agreement four years ago in state district court in Grand Forks in what prosecutors call the biggest sexual assault case in the county's history.

Sambursky argues he would have rejected the plea agreement had he known he would have to serve at least 85 percent of the sentence before he would be eligible for parole.

Sambursky was sentenced in January 2004 to 80 years in prison with 50 years suspended.

Under the state prison guidelines, he would have to serve about 25 years before he is eligible for parole.


Sambursky says he wasn't aware of the state prison guidelines for violent offenders and that his attorney, Lee Finstad of Grand Forks, didn't tell him. Had he known, he would have pleaded not guilty and gone to trial on the charges, Sambursky says.

Last year, the state Supreme Court ruled he deserved a review hearing in district court about whether Finstad gave him adequate advice to take the plea deal.

In July, District Judge Karen Braaten said Sambursky had "reasonable professional assistance" at the time he pleaded guilty.

The appeal will be argued Thursday at the Supreme Court in Bismarck.

The sentence

Sambursky was a criminal justice major at UND, married with young children and active in a Catholic parish when he was arrested in early 2003 after being tied to six sexual assaults in, or near, Grand Forks in 2001 and 2002. Three of the assaults happened on a bike path on UND's campus, two were in nearby neighborhoods and one happened just south of the city.

He vigorously denied the charges for months, collecting affidavits from a variety of UND leaders and neighbors attesting to his good character. But DNA evidence gathered from at least one victim matched Sambursky's, as did the victim's descriptions of his appearance and method of attack.

As part of a plea agreement, Sambursky pleaded guilty to gross sexual imposition in attacks on five of the women and to disorderly conduct in what prosecutors said was an aborted attempt at a sixth sexual assault. He also confessed to a seventh, unsolved sexual assault for which he was not charged.


One of his victims described in sworn statements, and in interviews with the media, how Sambursky violently attacked her and threatened to kill her as she fought him off.

At his sentencing, Sambursky read an apology to his victims, saying he was a sex addict and there was no excuse or justification for his attacks.

But once he heard Judge Debbie Kleven who had rejected an earlier, less onerous plea agreement explain how much time he would serve, Sambursky clearly expressed anger.

In arguing a motion for sentencing relief in early 2004 shortly after Sambursky was sentenced, Finstad acknowledged not knowing about the "85-percent rule" that would require his client to serve at least 25 years of the 30-year sentence he agreed to.

But in the district court review last spring, Judge Braaten ruled Sambursky failed to prove that he received ineffective counsel from Finstad, or that Sambursky indicated at the time that he would seek trial as soon as he heard what his sentence entailed.

Braaten said Sambursky never mentioned any dissatisfaction with Finstad and never mentioned the 85 percent rule in a motion filed in court after his sentence.

It wasn't until "11 months after he was informed that the 85 percent service requirement applies to him, that Sambursky alleges his attorney misled him," according to Braaten's ruling.

Sambursky's attorney, Rebecca Heigaard McGurran of Grand Forks, argues in the appeal that Finstad was misleading when he "actively informed Sambursky that there were no statutes, regulations, or rules that affected parole."


Grand Forks Assistant State's Attorney David Jones said Finstad "acted reasonably in his representation of Sambursky by researching relevant statutes regarding minimum mandatory sentencing and calling the state parole board regarding parolee rights" in a brief opposing the appeal.

Braaten ruled that Finstad's counsel was within professional standards.

While Finstad admits he didn't know about the 85 percent rule, and that Sambursky got a longer sentence than he deserved, he disputes Sambursky's account of what he did tell his client at the time.

He made clear to Sambursky, as he would to any client, that no one convicted of such crimes is guaranteed far less than the sentence's terms, Finstad has said. And if Sambursky actually had gone to trial on the charges, he may have been tried separately on each case and ended up doing even more time behind bars, Finstad told the Herald.

A psychiatric expert testified at Sambursky's sentencing hearing that he was not a high-risk offender. Finstad said that Sambursky very likely got a longer sentence than he might have previously, because his sentencing came shortly after UND student Dru Sjodin was abducted, an event that galvanized changes in law enforcement and court circles as well as the public arena.

Herald staff writer Stephen J. Lee contributed to this report.

Nadeau covers crime and courts for the Herald. She can be reached at (701) 780-1118; (800) 477-6572, ext. 118; or snadeau@gfherald.com .

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