By Dan Nienaber
Free Press Staff Writer
MANKATO — For nearly a year Jeremiah Booth has been spending most of his time in a prison cell in Faribault serving a 68-month sentence that never should have been issued.
When the sentence was ordered by Blue Earth County District Court Judge Kurt Johnson in October 2011, Booth’s attorney, Bradley Peyton, argued Johnson didn’t have the authority to send Booth to prison for the juvenile offense.
Booth, now 25, was a 15-year-old boy when he sexually assaulted children under the age of 13 in Blue Earth County. He was 24 when Johnson issued his sentence.
Johnson disagreed with Peyton and sent Booth to prison anyway. That decision was recently overruled by a Minnesota Court of Appeals decision that said Booth should be released.
The case is complicated, partially because it involves a rarely used court program that allows teens to remain on probation in juvenile court while an adult sentence hangs over their head, Peyton said. And the ruling is based on a technicality likely resulting from an administrative oversight, also something that happens very rarely, he said.
“It’s one of the very few cases I’ve ever been involved in where a procedural error occurred. It isn’t like TV where it happens all the time. It’s one of those rare cases where procedure wasn’t followed, but everyone has the right to have the court follow the rules.”
Booth was 15 when he started sexually assaulting children in 2002, but he was 17 before the assaults came to light. Prosecutors originally wanted to charge him as an adult but reached a plea agreement where Booth was given a 68-month adult prison sentence that was stayed as long as he completed treatment. The agreement also allowed the case to remain in juvenile court as long as the prison sentence wasn’t imposed.
The problems with Booth’s case began in 2006 when it was sent to Olmsted County, which is where Booth was going through treatment. It is common for juvenile cases to be moved to where a person is living after a sentence is imposed.
About a year later, in September 2007, Booth’s probation agent requested a probation violation hearing because Booth hadn’t been successful in treatment. At that time the Olmsted County judge found that Booth would still benefit more from treatment than incarceration. Booth had both mental and behavioral issues that would require treatment for the rest of his life and placement “in adult prison would be counter productive,” the judge said.
The judge revoked Booth’s juvenile probation and placed him on adult probation with a recommendation for sex offender treatment. Booth, who was 20 at that time, then made a request through his attorney to have the case moved back to Blue Earth County for adult sentencing. The request was granted Nov. 28, 2007, but the Olmsted County judge issued an order saying a sentencing hearing should happen within two weeks.
That hearing didn’t take place.
Instead an order was issued Jan. 15, 2008, requiring Booth to remain in jail until he could be placed at a treatment center called Alpha House in Minneapolis. That order and several more that dealt with funding for the treatment said they were coming from the “Juvenile Division” of Blue Earth County District Court, the Court of Appeals ruling said.
Treatment ends again
Booth was sent to Alpha House in September 2008 because funding had become available and there was an opening. During a hearing at that time, Booth’s attorney pointed out that there had never been a hearing or sentencing order after Booth was transferred to Blue Earth County. By then Booth was 21 years old and, without the order, was technically done with juvenile probation.
Johnson said a modified sentencing order would come later.
The appeals court ruling said there is no record of a modified order being issued or an adult sentencing hearing taking place after Booth was sent to Alpha House.
Booth’s case didn’t come before Johnson again until August 2011, which is when another probation revocation hearing was requested. Booth had been making progress in treatment during the three years he was there, but he had been terminated from the program because staff found child pornography on his cellphone.
During a probation revocation hearing in October 2011, Booth’s probation officer told Johnson there weren’t any other treatment options. She also said Booth would be a threat to society if released.
Peyton declined to address the probation allegations during that hearing. He said, because no adult sentencing order had been filed years earlier, the case should have been closed. Peyton also filed a motion to dismiss the charges and have Booth released from jail immediately.
The Court of Appeals ruling said Johnson didn’t have the authority to send Booth to Alpha House, much less prison three years later, because Booth’s probation period had ended when he turned 21.
Release still unlikely
Peyton credited the staff working with public defenders in Blue Earth County with finding the problems with Booth’s case. In a time of budget cuts and staff shortages, it’s difficult to find the time needed for a growing case load, he said.
It’s also a challenge to make sure everything happens correctly in all the other areas related to criminal justice, which are facing funding and staffing shortages of their own.
“When they handed me the file, they had already pointed out all these issues,” Peyton said while dealing with other cases at the Blue Earth County Justice Center. “There’s so many moving parts to what we do up here, it’s amazing how many times the I’s get dotted and the T’s get crossed.”
Booth is still in prison because the Department of Corrections hasn’t received a court order for his release. District courts have 37 days from the day of the appeals court ruling to send the order, said John Schadl, Department of Corrections spokesman.
Prosecutors could appeal to the Supreme Court, but that isn’t likely because they didn’t file a brief or response for Booth’s appeal. Assistant Blue Earth County Attorney Chris Rovney didn’t respond to a call requesting comment for this story.
The child pornography allegedly found on Booth’s phone also resulted in felony charges being filed in Hennepin County. That case has not been resolved, so Booth would likely be sent to jail there to await a bail hearing if he is released from prison.
The Court of Appeals ruling also pointed out that Booth will be required to register as a predatory sex offender because he was found guilty of sex crimes in juvenile court.