WEST DES MOINES, Iowa -- From murder to arson, sex assault to kidnapping, Iowans charged with some of the most serious charges are avoiding trial by taking a plea deal.
Typically, that means a lighter sentence and what some argue is a miscarriage of justice.
Yet it’s become Iowa’s cheapest and most popular way to get a conviction.
Shanna Harker is trying to prevent a plea deal from happening in her case. The West Des Moines woman says she was raped by a man she met online last July. Harker and Mason Reilly met for the first time at a tractor pull in Hamilton County. But that night, the man she thought was just a “nice country boy” became a different person.
“He just starts getting really aggressive,” says Harker. “Next thing I know I’m trying to hold my pants and my underwear up but he was stronger than I was. I just froze.”
The next morning, Harker called 911 to report the rape. After hours of questioning and an invasive medical exam she finally got to go home, and so did Mason.
“I can go to the grocery store, steal a stick of gum and I will be in a jail cell,” says Harker. “But he can violate women, beat them up, I had bruises, and he gets to walk free? And nobody sees anything wrong with that?”
A month later, Reilly was charged with 3rd degree sexual assault. It’s not his first run-in with the law. In fact, Reilly faces charges for allegedly assaulting another woman at the same campground just weeks before Shanna.
Since 2012, Reilly’s been arrested in five different counties and accused of harassment, domestic abuse, assault and multiple sex crimes. Yet every single time he’s been allowed to plead to lesser charges.
“I want to be the last one. I don’t want to see anybody else’s life ruined. I don’t think it’s fair,” shares Harker.
In her case, Hamilton County is offering Mason another plea deal. Downgrading the charge to “assault with sexual intent.”
“How is it sexual intent when you’re raped? I don’t understand that,” asks Harker. But she hasn’t had the opportunity to ask questions.
“I haven’t talked to that county attorney for one second.”
And advocates say that’s not surprising.
“They have certain counties that they can pick up the phone and have a great conversation with the county attorney and the prosecution happens in a way that makes sense, that they can follow with how decisions are being made with charging, and then there’s other counties where no one will call them back,” says Kerri True-Funk, Iowa Coalition Against Sexual Assault’s Director of Operations and Special Projects.
We ran into the same problem. Leaving multiple messages with the Hamilton County Attorney’s Office and never getting a response.
Court records show of the four felony sex assault cases filed in Hamilton County last year, none of them went to trial. Three ended in plea deals and the fourth was dismissed.
But it’s not just a rural Iowa issue. The state’s most populated county also took zero sex crimes to trial last year. Of the 50 sex assault cases in Polk County, 37 of them ended in plea deals, 10 were dismissed and three were transferred.
And it’s not just sex crimes that are ending in plea agreements. Nationwide, more than 95 percent of criminal defendants accept a deal. Here in Iowa, less than one percent of felonies and indictable misdemeanors go to trial.
Specific areas have become a destination for crime. Officers in Greene County say criminals admit they go there knowing it’s likely they’ll just get a slap on the wrist.
Last year, there was one jury trial for a drug charge and 83 percent of cases resulted in plea deals.
“There’s nothing inherently wrong with a plea deal,” says Greene County attorney Thomas Laehn. The reality is the state only allows them to have 10 trials per year.
“There’s just no other option.” Laehn says he’s trying to serve justice with the hand he’s dealt.
“I’m less concerned with the particular name of the crime the person’s pleading guilty to, so long as the punishment fits the crime.”
But even if there is a compromise between prosecutor and defendant, “The judge can just ignore the plea agreement and impose a more harsh penalty or a more lenient penalty,” says Laehn.
Which has happened multiple times since he joined the office less than two years ago.
“Why would I spend all that time and energy if the judge is just going to let the person go free anyway? That’s incredibly frustrating” explains Laehn.
So the cycle continues.
“I think it actually promotes crime. Because people know or believe they can actually get away with things without consequence,” says the attorney.
“If you have committed some sort of crime and all you’re getting is some sort of slap on the wrist, it doesn’t take away your incentive to not commit the crime going forward,” exclaims True-Funk.
“If he’s not going to jail or getting repercussions for his actions, he’s never going to learn right from wrong,” says Harker. “He’s never going to learn that if I do this, this is what’s going to happen.”
Some say the issue comes down to politics.
“At the end of the day, community safety should not be about your political affiliation and your ability to win an election,” says True-Funk.
“If we were to have 290 criminal trials in Greene County it would cost tax payers millions and millions of dollars,” says Laehn.
“We talk about drug offenses and people with addiction problems in ways and criminalize that behavior so that there is monetary incentives for prosecuting those crimes, crimes against people are going to be much lower down on the list,” says True-Funk.
“So it’s all about making money,” asks Harker. “My rape isn’t good enough for you because my case doesn’t make you money?”
While others argue there’s pressure from the top and they’re working to find ways around a broken system.
“It can happen where someone is sent to prison for five years and someone is sent to jail for six months, the person who was sent to prison for five years is released before the person who got the six month jail sentence. So I rarely now try to even send someone to prison,” shares Laehn.
Regardless of the outcome, Shanna hopes Mason will finally learn right from wrong.
“I want it to end with me. I want justice for me, I want justice for all the women before me, and I want to protect the innocence after me,” says Harker.
The original charge of third degree sex abuse in Shanna’s is a class C felony, meaning Mason would face up to a decade in prison.
By lowering the charge to “assault with sexual intent” it drops to an aggravated misdemeanor, meaning the strongest punishment Mason could get is two years behind bars and a cheaper fine.
Judge James McGlynn has yet to accept the deal.
A hearing is scheduled for Monday, March 11th.