JUNEAU, Alaska (Editor's note: This story by Juneau Empire reporter Paula Solis is republished with permission from the Juneau Empire.)
In an attempt to avoid a possible 40-year prison sentence, a convicted child rapist is asking that a statewide panel of judges review his case. A Juneau state legislator has issued her support for his cause.
Rep. Cathy Muñoz, and several others in Southeast Alaska, have sent letters to Juneau Superior Court Judge Philip Pallenberg, asking him to consider a lighter sentence for Thomas Jack Jr.
“Tom’s conviction has had a profound impact on me. There have been times when I laid awake at night unable to sleep concerned over the length of his sentence and the cold reality that he may never see freedom again,” Muñoz wrote to Pallenberg, according to a copy of the letter. “He is not a violent person, and I believe he would respond well to rehabilitation.”
The letter was sent on May 18 as part of Jack’s request for the three-judge panel review, which could reduce his prison sentence by up to 50 percent.
Jack, 40, was convicted by a Juneau jury during a 2010 trial on six felony counts of sexually assaulting a minor — his then 11-year-old foster daughter. The child and her younger sister had begun living with the Jack family in Hoonah in summer 2007.
In 2008, the Office of Children’s Services received a report from Jack’s wife. The report said Jack had an inappropriate relationship with the oldest child and that the case worker needed to “do whatever it takes to find somewhere else” for the children, according to Assistant District Attorney Angie Kemp.
Kemp wrote in a report, filed in response to Jack’s request for the panel sentencing, that Jack’s wife then called the OCS case worker about a month later, saying Jack was found in the bathroom with the child, holding a shower curtain open to watch her as she showered.
The children were taken from the Jack home in December 2008.
One month later, during a criminal investigation, the victim told a Juneau Police Department detective that she was sexually abused by Jack for about two months. She talked about the physical pain she felt when Jack would “push” himself on her body and how he said that he “loved” her while she watched him pleasure himself. She told the detective she felt guilty; she knew Jack was giving her more “attention” and she worried about how that made her younger sister feel.
Jack and his wife moved from Hoonah to Juneau shortly after the children were taken away; he was living in Juneau when he was charged and convicted. He continues to maintain his innocence.
Prosecutors are asking for the minimum sentence for the six felonies: 40 years and one day.
As the date for Jack’s sentencing approaches (it’s set for Sept. 8), 15 people in Southeast have sent letters to Judge Pallenberg in support of Jack. Receiving letters of support before a defendant is sentenced is not unusual; defense attorneys solicit such letters from a defendant’s family and friends so they can present character references to the judge before sentencing.
What is unusual is that one of those letters came from a state legislator. And it wasn’t the first time.
Twice in recent months, Rep. Cathy Muñoz has lent her support to defendants facing charges related to a child’s rape.
In June, she sent a letter of support to Judge Trevor Stephens for Mary Chessica Hauge, 33, who was convicted in Juneau of eight felony counts of child endangerment after leaving her two daughters with a known sex offender, their biological father. The father had repeatedly raped the young girls over a number of years and created pornography with them. Prosecutors called it one of the worst cases they had ever seen.
At Hauge’s sentencing, prosecutors argued that Hauge knew about the children’s abuse, yet still let it happen, and she was therefore complicit in the acts. The judge acknowledged that Hauge had a role to play in their suffering.
In her support of Hauge, a letter dated June 16 on official legislative letterhead, Muñoz said she and Hauge attended the same church — Holy Trinity Episcopal Church — and that they were friends. She asked the judge to accept her “compassionate support” as her friend “moves forward in her life under difficult circumstances.” She wrote that she was “impressed by Chessica’s strong Christian faith and her dedication to regular (church) attendance.”
In her letter for Jack’s defense, Muñoz said she has known the Jack family of Hoonah for many years.
“My husband, Juan, was adopted into the Eagle Thunderbird clan in Hoonah, and since that time Tom and his extended family have been friends of my husband and mine.”
She goes on to say that she believes Jack will respond well to rehabilitation and that if he returned to the community, he would be a “productive contributor.”
In the Legislature, Muñoz is a member of the powerful House Finance Committee and chairwoman of the subcommittee that sets the budget for the Alaska Court System.
In a phone interview Friday with the Empire, Muñoz said she wrote the letter as a private citizen, not in her formal role as a state representative. She said she is a friend of the family and knows Jack’s sister-in-law more than she knows Jack himself.
“In the criminal code it says that a citizen can write a letter at this point in the process,” Muñoz said. “It has nothing to do with the conviction or any kind of opinion of guilt or innocence. It’s simply to review the sentence.”
She also said she is aware that Jack has never admitted he’s guilty, and she would not comment on whether she thinks he’s guilty or not. She added that she did not attend any of the court hearings in the case and does not know the victim.
By phone, ADA Kemp (who also prosecuted Hauge’s case) told the Empire that she does not recall Muñoz ever attending hearings in either of the cases.
In Kemp’s report that was filed in court, Kemp addressed the letters of support to Jack.
“The State wonders how much of the defendant’s denial is motivated by the unyielding support of several community members who (while they did not sit through the trial) are convinced he is innocent,” Kemp wrote.
Kemp then directly refuted a point in Muñoz’s letter: that it’s “a more productive route” for Jack to be rehabilitated rather than serve “long-term incarceration.”
“Coming out of a decade or more of hard on crime laws, we now know that many individuals can and should be rehabilitated when that opportunity exists,” Muñoz’s letter reads.
ADA Kemp interpreted that to be a reference to Senate Bill 91 — the comprehensive crime reform bill that overhauled Alaska’s criminal justice system and was just signed into law. Muñoz supported that bill.
“Rep Muñoz goes on to imply that the shift in policy (e.g. SB 91) should be applied to the defendant’s circumstances. Nevertheless, the Legislature did not elect to modify the sentencing statues applicable to the defendant. ... It is reasonable to presume the Legislature did that intentionally, in light of the obviously unacceptable rates of sexual abuse of minors in the state of Alaska,” Kemp’s report reads.
Senate Bill 91 did not lessen sentencing ranges for sex abuse of a minor offenses, in other words.
In the interview with the Empire, Muñoz denied referring to SB 91 in her letter. If someone inferred that, as prosecutors did, it was not her intention, she said.
When asked if she violated any legislative policy by writing letters of support to criminal defendants, Muñoz noted that she did not send the letters using her official legislative letterhead from her state office because she was writing as a personal friend of both defendants, not as a legislator. But she did use the official legislative letterhead for the letter on Hauge’s behalf.
Her letter to Hauge is clearly on her official state stationary, which features the state seal at the top of the page and the words “REPRESENTATIVE CATHY MUÑOZ” beneath it. She signed that letter “Cathy Muñoz, Representative-District 34.” At the very bottom of the letter are the words “STATE CAPITOL,” with her office work phone number, fax number and her work email address:email@example.com.
When pressed about this during the interview, Muñoz said she did not remember writing that letter with her legislative letterhead, and if she did do that, it was by mistake.
In response to the Empire’s inquiry about the letters, Muñoz forwarded an electronic copy of her letter of support for Jack — which was not written on legislative letterhead — to Jerry Anderson, administrator for the Select Committee on Legislative Ethics, for his opinion.
“You have not used state resources or your legislative title or legislative letterhead in the letter you have forwarded. I think these show your intention to avoid even the appearance of impropriety,” Anderson wrote in an emailed reply that Muñoz forwarded to the Empire.
Muñoz did not forward Anderson her letter to Hauge, which was on official letterhead.
In an interview with the Empire, Anderson said by phone that he hasn’t seen the letter on official letterhead, and that the ethics of sending such a letter are not clearly defined.
“It’s not a direct violation from what I could see of the Legislative Ethics Act,” Anderson said.
Requests by the Empire to speak with House Majority Leader Rep. Charisse Millet and House Speaker Mike Chenault about the matter went unanswered. Minority Leader Rep. Chris Tuck replied but declined comment.
Rep. Sam Kito III, D-Juneau, said he found the news about Muñoz’s personal letters during criminal cases “concerning.”
“I had been operating under the premise that when something is in a legal proceeding, that it was not ethical for legislators to insert themselves or attempt to influence the outcome,” Kito said in a phone interview on Friday.
In regards to Muñoz’s claim that her letters were sent as a “private citizen,” Kito said he too at times has made statements while not addressing himself as a representative, but he knows his name cannot so easily be disconnected from his office.
“My name in the district is very well known,” Kito said. “It’s very difficult at a certain point to separate me personally from me legislatively.”
Failing the victim
Muñoz was the only elected official to write a letter for Jack, but not the only community leader. Juliana Jackson, director of tribal operations for the Hoonah Indian Association, wrote a letter on his behalf, calling him a “great role model to the younger generation” adding that his return to the village should be “sooner than later.”
Rev. Kirk J. Elmore, founder of the Landmark Apostolic Church in Juneau and a Hoonah pastor, offered his support for Jack.
Jackson did not return repeated calls requesting comment, and Elmore said he was uncomfortable talking about the case before a sentence is decided.
In total, seven permanent or temporary residents of Hoonah wrote letters of support for Jack, about 1 percent of the town’s population.
Every friend or relative expressing support for Jack also expressed understanding that Jack was convicted for sexual assault of a minor, but none of the letters directly mention his crime.
Saralyn Tabachnick, the director of Aiding Women in Abuse and Rape Emergencies (AWARE) said it isn’t uncommon for people who are closely tied to someone to struggle with the possibility that a friend can also be a rapist.
“I understand that it’s hard for people to believe that a person they are friends with could have committed this crime. ... It upsets their worldview, and if they believe it, they would have to adjust themselves and how they relate to this person, how they relate to this crime,” Tabachnick said. “They would have to feel the pain of that and the loss of that. But this (reality) is something the victim has (to live with) and has to do to survive.”
Although Tabachnick said she was not familiar with the specifics of Jack’s case or Rep. Muñoz’s support, she said it is always troubling when a victim is not supported. When people step in for a perpetrator, they sometimes do so without regard for what that says to the current and future victims of sexual abuse, she said.
“I would hope that all Legislators would want offenders held accountable as the law requires,” Tabachnick said. “If they’re not accountable, they may repeat the behavior.”
Tabachnick said she hopes all victims know that people who blame victims or make victims feel guilty for telling the truth about their attack are only part of a minority.
ADA Kemp wrote in her report that Jack’s victim continued living in Hoonah for some time after she came forward about the abuse. Kemp added that the victim was treated harshly by some in the community and called profane names when she entered stores. Kemp said she learned about those actions from the victim’s new foster mother, who later adopted her. The victim’s adoptive mother was the only person during trial to write a letter of support for her, a fact that “represents the worst about our society,” Kemp said.
“Our community should be ashamed of itself when it loses sight of the fact that its job is to protect the most vulnerable among us — the children,” Kemp wrote. “The message is clear: stay quiet, tell no one, and suffer the indignity of what has happened to you alone.”
Victims of domestic or sexual violence can contact AWARE for free and confidential help at the 24-7 crisis line, 586-1090 or 1-800-478-1090. For more information about AWARE services, visitwww.awareak.org.
• Contact reporter Paula Ann Solis at 523-2272 or firstname.lastname@example.org.