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Sunday, April 21, 2024

Little time behind bars for UW students guilty of sexual assault

National data show sentences are typically more severe

From 2011 to 2017, at least five UW-Madison students were convicted in sexual assault cases with maximum sentences that could have totaled more than six decades behind bars. But in total, the five students — three of whom were guilty of felonies — served less than a year in jail, which is significantly lower than typical sentencing norms for violent crimes.

Nearly 90 percent of people convicted of rape are incarcerated, with 84 percent going to prison on an average sentence of longer than 10 years, according to a Bureau of Justice Statistics’ analysis of 2009 data on felony defendants from America’s 75 largest counties. The outcome of five recent cases involving UW-Madison students sharply deviates from these rates.

The longest sentence among the felony cases involving UW-Madison students was four months, and another student convicted of a felony sexual assault was not sentenced to any jail or prison time.

Wisconsin state statutes do not use the language of “rape,” meaning none of the five students faced that conviction. The cases involving UW-Madison students vary significantly by degree, but two involve guilty convictions to third- or second-degree sexual assault charges. These charges would fit the Department of Justice’s definition of rape — which is “the penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person, without the consent of the victim.”

Three other cases were for fourth-degree sexual assault charges, which would not fit this definition.

But others have provided reasons for the short sentences, such as how less time spent incarcerated can mean a lower rate of re-offending and how a lot of the cases end with plea deals, which can bring reduced charges. Many students have been quick to condemn the punishments for sexual assault and sexual violence in general as too lenient, with some saying they could discourage victims from reporting assaults in the future. 

And as two nationally publicized sexual assault cases involving former UW-Madison students continue to move forward — Alec Shiva will be sentenced on Sept. 15 and Alec Cook will soon be heading to trial — some students are now advocating for harsher sentences to be handed down in future cases.

“It’s outrageous. Clearly these perpetrators are not getting sentences that fit the crime,” said Katrina Morrison, chair of the Associated Students of Madison and an outspoken advocate for sexual assault survivors. “Sadly, I don’t expect Shiva to get a very appropriate sentence because that’s been the pattern.”

The five students discussed in this story have gone through both criminal proceedings and university non-academic misconduct hearings and have been found guilty and responsible in both. They represent a tiny portion of all sexual assaults committed each year (2016 saw reports of 325 sexual assaults at UW-Madison).

The Daily Cardinal obtained the names of the five students through an open records request made to the university. During this time period, it is possible other students went through just the criminal process and not the university non-academic misconduct hearing.

Arrests bring potential of decades behind bars

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A Minnesota hockey game was on, and former UW-Madison student Douglas Gill was watching with several of his friends in Witte Residence Hall. He was also snorting cocaine and drinking alcohol, according to the criminal complaint.

Gill later entered another student’s dorm room, where he forced the victim face-down on her futon and sexually assaulted her, according to the complaint. She said “stop” and “no,” and he responded by shushing her and saying “I want to make you feel good” and “I know you want it.”

After he pleaded no contest in court, he ended up serving no more time behind bars for the assault. The outcome of Gill’s case is not unique; it largely mirrors the four other cases involving UW-Madison students.

She was only able to get him off when she lied about being on her period. He then left the room and sent the woman a text. “I’m just gonna take a lot of drugs n (sic) pass out, sorry for literally raping you that was so not cool,” Gill wrote, according to the complaint.

Gill was initially charged with two felonies (third-degree sexual assault and false imprisonment) and he faced a maximum sentence of 16 years in prison.

Including Gill, four of the five students could have spent more than 10 years behind bars based on the initial charges they faced. Former UW-Madison student Andrew Beulen was initially facing 40 years after being charged in 2011 with second-degree sexual assault, though he later pleaded no contest to a third-degree sexual assault, which carried a maximum punishment of 10 years.

The only case that did not include a felony charge at any point was that of Frank Jermusek, who pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges of fourth-degree sexual assault and battery. He received a sentence of deferred prosecution, and both of these charges were later dismissed.

Pleading down of charges

In Gill’s case, a third-degree sexual assault charge was reduced to two misdemeanor counts of fourth-degree sexual assault. The same happened to Hwasung Yeom, whose initial charges included a felony of third-degree sexual assault. This charge was later dismissed, with Yeom then pleading guilty to the misdemeanor charges of fourth-degree sexual assault and disorderly conduct.

This is not out of the ordinary for criminal cases, as nearly all guilty outcomes are from pleas rather than trials, according to the BJS data.

UW-Madison Police Department Detective Lt. Brent Plisch said reducing charges in plea deals — which is left up to the district attorney’s office — is especially common in sexual assault cases because they are often “very difficult to prove.”

“That’s the DA’s prerogative. They get to do that,” Plisch said. “It’s a bargaining chip that they hold as the district attorney to ensure that the cases move through the system while still holding the offender accountable.”

Another reason plea deals are so prevalent in sexual assault cases is to prevent victims from having to testify in court, according to Plisch, who explained that it can be traumatic for victims to recount their assault in front of so many people.

“From [UWPD’s] perspective, we would rather have the cases plead out in a manner that saves the victim from having to testify in court,” Plisch said. “But the victims are also consulted by the DA’s office about these plea bargains, they’re never just offered to the suspects.”

The Dane County District Attorney’s office did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

The final sentences

Out of the five cases, only Nathan Friar went to trial. He was found guilty of second-degree sexual assault but not guilty of a count of strangulation and suffocation. Still facing 40 years behind bars, he instead got eight years of probation.

“For Nathan Friar to walk away with eight years of probation when people go to prison for less severe crimes is absurd,” Friar’s victim later told BuzzFeed News. She went on to explain that the sentence could discourage other victims from reporting “because in a sense she is saying that the perpetrator’s life is more important than the victim’s.”

After Gill’s charges were reduced, he still faced up to seven years and six months behind bars. He pleaded no contest to the misdemeanor sexual assault charges and the felony of false imprisonment.

In the spring of 2015, Dane County Circuit Judge John Markson gave him a time-served jail sentence of four days and three years of probation. Markson said he did not send Gill to jail because the defendant took the situation very seriously and showed “sincere regret,” according to the Wisconsin State Journal.

Patti Coffey, a UW-Madison professor who has specialized in sex offender risk assessment, said that longer jail or prison sentences are not always the key to reducing the chances an assailant reoffends. Often, the longer a person is behind bars, the harder it is for them to readjust when they’re released, she said.

“There is some research that suggests a slight increase in risk if you’re incarcerated for a longer period of time than someone who is sentenced to the community or sentenced to a lesser period of incarceration,” Coffey said. “There’s a lot of reasons to be concerned about incarceration if our concern is future risk. Sometimes it’s not our concern; sometimes it’s a punishment.”

Through UW-Madison’s separate non-academic misconduct hearing, Gill was expelled from the university — one of six students to receive that sanction in the past decade.

Morrison said she’s hesitant to advocate for mandatory minimum sentences for sexual assailants because of the harm those punishments have brought to people of color. But still, she said there needs to be more serious sentences levelled against those found guilty of assault.

“I do think there should be more of a commitment to prosecuting these people,” said Morrison, who hopes to one day be a public defender in her hometown of Milwaukee. “I feel like there needs to be a systematic and a cultural shift that we start viewing sexual assault as something that is incredibly serious and that needs to be punished seriously.”

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