Judge brings 3 1/2 year old case to an end with dismissal
A Class A misdemeanor charge of corruption of a minor has been dismissed against Alexander Justin Pittenger, 24, of Minot.
Judge Stacy Louser signed the order of dismissal on Thursday. The State Supreme Court had ordered last month that the charge against Pittenger be vacated. The justices ruled that Louser created a structural error during the trial because she closed the courtroom for the testimony of the minor victim, who was 17 at the time, without first holding the required hearing to determine whether it was necessary to do so. Pittenger had objected to closing the courtroom for the victim’s testimony and wanted his family with him for support during her testimony.
The prosecution had also asked Louser to dismiss the case altogether rather than holding a third trial. Ward County Assistant State’s Attorney Marie Miller said in her written argument that she wants to spare the young woman the stress of another trial.
Pittenger is currently serving a five year sentence for stabbing a man in the torso in McHenry County. He was convicted of the 2015 crime in December and sentenced by a judge in January. He was also convicted of a corruption of a minor charge in a case involving a second girl. He is required to register as a sex offender following that conviction, so Miller said in her filing that it is not necessary to try Pittenger again in the Ward County case.
The Pittenger case in Ward County has been troubled from the outset and has dragged on for over three years. He had been accused of having sex with the girl when he was 19 and the girl was 14 and had originally been charged with Class A felony gross sexual imposition as well as Class A misdemeanor corruption of a minor. He went to trial on both those charges in January 2016, but the trial was halted while the state’s attorney’s office appealed one of Louser’s rulings to the Supreme Court. The state had called a BCI agent as a witness without designating him as an expert and Louser had ruled that his testimony might be detrimental to Pittenger. The State Supreme Court sent the case back to Louser for further consideration. She allowed the BCI agent to testify outside the presence of the jury and then decided to let him testify that he had extracted information from the victim’s cell phone.
Pittenger then went to trial again in July 2016, but the case ended in mistrial. According to court records, Louser held numerous side bars with attorneys during the trial, the lawyers offered spoken objections, witnesses were removed from the courtroom, and the jury was sent out of the courtoom several times. The state’s attorney’s office asked for a mistrial because exhibits had been left out on a table in the courtroom overnight during the trial. The jury was also removed while lawyers made arguments about that occurrence. Louser eventually ordered the mistrial after she found that one of the witnesses had violated her order not to disclose that Pittenger had a prior conviction for violating a protection order.
In January 2017, the state’s attorney’s office asked to dismiss the Class A felony charge, after admitting that it could not prove all the elements of the case. Louser signed the order of dismissal. Pittenger then went to trial on the Class A misdemeanor charge of corruption of a minor in February 2017 and was found guilty of having a sexual relationship with the girl when he was 20 and she was 15. Pittenger was sentenced in July 2017 to 360 days in jail, with all suspended but the 300 days, followed by two years of supervised probation. He was also ordered to have no contact with the victim and to register as a sex offender. It was that conviction that Pittenger appealed to the Supreme Court. Both the state and the defense had argued at a prior hearing that Louser must vacate the conviction because a structural error had been created during the trial. State law requires that a judge must first consider several different factors on the record before deciding to close the courtroom, including whether it is necessary to do so and if there are alternatives to closing the courtroom. Louser had declined to vacate the conviction and said she wanted the Supreme Court to make a ruling. The Supreme Court then ruled last month that Pittenger’s constitutional right to a public trial was violated because that required hearing was not held and ordered her to vacate the conviction.
Court records show that Pittenger has also filed a request to plead guilty to a pending Class A misdemeanor charge of violation of a domestic violence protection order in district court in Minot. Under the terms of a proposed plea agreement, other misdemeanor charges against him would then be dismissed.