Error at trial could lead to dismissal of corruption charge

A structural error at his trial last year may result in the dismissal of a Class A misdemeanor corruption charge against Alexander Justin Pittenger, 23, of Minot.

A jury convicted Pittenger in February 2017 of having a sexual relationship with a 15-year-old girl when he was 20. In July 2017, Judge Stacy Louser sentenced Pittenger to serve 300 days in jail, with credit for 153 days already served. Pittenger was also placed on supervised probation for two years.

At a court hearing on Thursday, both prosecutors and the defense told Louser that the conviction will have to be vacated and then dismissed. According to statements made at the hearing, Louser had closed the courtroom while the minor victim testified, over the objections of the defense.

Pittenger’s current defense lawyer, Kiara Kraus-Parr, who called into the courtroom and spoke during a telephone conference, told Louser that state law does not require that a courtroom be closed for the testimony of a juvenile witness. When the state asked to close the courtroom, a hearing should have been held to determine whether it was necessary and what alternatives were considered to closing the courtroom.

“I don’t like it and I don’t necessarily appreciate the state of our current law,” said Ward County Assistant State’s Attorney Marie Miller. However, she concurred with Kraus-Parr that a reversal of the court decision was likely necessary based on the structural error that took place at the trial. Even harmless structural error would result in a reversal in the case.

In addition, Miller told the judge that the victim in the case is not up to a third trial and that is another reason the state’s attorney’s office wants the case dismissed.

Pittenger had appealed his conviction to the State Supreme Court.

Louser noted that it would be unusual to vacate the conviction when Pittenger was found guilty of the corruption charge by a jury.

If the case is dismissed, Pittenger will no longer be required to register as a sex offender. However, Pittenger has also been charged in McHenry County with Class A misdemeanor corruption of a minor, dating back to March 2015. Miller said she spoke with the prosecutor in that case and was assured that it is a strong case. Pittenger allegedly fathered that minor victim’s child and the existence of the child is strong evidence that a crime occurred, according to Miller.

The case against Pittenger has been met with stops and starts since the beginning. He had originally also been charged with Class A felony gross sexual imposition and accused of having a sexual relationship with a girl when he was 19 and the girl was 14. He had gone to trial on the Class A felony GSI charge and Class A misdemeanor corruption of a minor charge in January 2016. The trial was stalled when the state’s attorney’s office appealed one of Louser’s rulings to the Supreme Court. Louser had ruled that a BCI special agent had not been designated as an expert witness and his testimony might be unfairly detrimental toward Pittenger. The Supreme Court ruled that her ruling was premature. Louser then heard the agent’s testimony outside the presence of the jury and decided he could testify that he extracted text messages from the victim’s cell phone.

Pittenger went to trial again in July 2016 on the two charges, but the case ended in mistrial after Louser ruled that a witness had violated her previous order not to disclose Pittenger’s prior conviction for violation of a protection order.

In January 2017, Louser dismissed the Class A felony GSI charge against Pittenger after the Ward County State’s Attorney’s office acknowledged that it couldn’t prove every element of the offense.

Pittenger went to trial in February 2017 on the Class A misdemeanor corruption of a minor charge and was found guilty. This is the charge that the state’s attorney’s office has now asked Louser to dismiss.

The state’s attorney’s office dismissed yet another charge against Pittenger in April. He had been accused of violating a disorderly conduct restraining order preventing him from having contact with an 18-year-old woman. According to court documents, the woman had made contact with Pittenger on Snapchat in October 2017 and decided to give him another chance because they have a child together. Pittenger’s parents told police that the young woman had knocked on their door, but Pittenger wasn’t home at the time. That Class A misdemeanor charge was dismissed against Pittenger for lack of evidence.

Pittenger is currently listed as a high risk sex offender on the North Dakota Sex Offenders Registry. However, the information given in that entry lists details of the Class A felony charge that was eventually dismissed against Pittenger because the state couldn’t prove it beyond a reasonable doubt.

Louser said Thursday she will issue a ruling at a later date.