An Alabama man who earlier this year was sentenced to only probation for repeatedly raping his teenage neighbor will avoid jail for a second time, after widespread outrage in the community forced a judge to re-sentence him.
Austin Smith Clem, 25, was found guilty in September of raping his female neighbor three times during her adolescence, the first known attack coming when the girl was just 14 years old. Limestone County Circuit Judge James Woodroof sentenced Clem to 30 years in prison last month, but used an Alabama law technicality to split the sentence for each charge.
Consequently, Clem was sentenced to serve time in a state program for nonviolent offenders – although he would still be allowed to live at home and keep his job. After that program's completion, Clem was ordered to serve three years of probation.
The program Clem was ordered to attend seeks to “re-direct the lives” of nonviolent, low-level criminals who are deemed “likely to maintain a productive and law-abiding life as a result of accountability, guidance and direction to services they need.”
First-degree rape is a Class A felony and therefore punishable by 20 years to life in prison. Each second-degree rape charge is a Class B felony, which could cost an offender anywhere from two to 10 years behind bars. Yet, according to local news site AL.com, Alabama sentences are allowed to be “split” between probation and community service at a judge’s discretion when differing punishments are in place.
Media outlets generally avoid identifying rape victims, but Courtney Andrews was so furious with the decision that she decided to voice her frustration to WHNT-TV in Alabama.
“Yeah people know who he is, and that he's dangerous, but he still gets to do what he wants,” she said. “He gets to work, be with his kids, be with his family, live life. It just smacks me in the face. It's like you did all of this and put your story out there for him just to walk, and it hurts.”
Limestone County District Attorney Brian Jones was furious with the announcement, shouting “This isn't legal!” in court before vowing to do everything he could to correct the error. The first order of business was to file a motion to re-sentence.
“When a trial court re-sentences a defendant after a portion of the original sentence is determined to be illegal, the court must cure the defective portion of the sentence, but may not change the portions of the initial sentence that are otherwise valid,” the district attorney argued in the motion.
Yet the second sentence did nothing to comfort the victim or her family. On Monday, Woodroof sentenced Clem to 15 years for one count of first-degree rape and 10 years for each of the two second-degree rape charges he was found guilty of. However, those sentences will only go into effect if Clem violates the terms of his probation.
“We are disgusted,” Richard Andrews, the victim's father, told WHNT-TV. “We are trying to enjoy Christmas as a family and then this happens, we have no idea what the judge is thinking. It's ridiculous.”
Jones said he will again file a motion to re-sentence, claiming the first sentence was indeed legal, and that changing the penalty for first-degree rape to 15 years is illegal. Jones said he will seek to convince the judge to sentence Clem under Alabama law.
Mark McDaniel, a Hunstville attorney, told the local TV station that the judge will likely not change his mind - no matter how many more appeals there are.
“Woodroof was in the courtroom and he listened to all of the facts in this case, what the public has seen is headlines, and even if his decision is not popular he is the judge,” McDaniel said.