PORTLAND, Mich. (WOOD) — A woman hopes her statement in court and the thousands of signatures on a petition will convince an Ionia County judge to overrule the plea deal for her daughter’s abuser.
Court documents detailing Dean Stauffer’s case describe a pattern of abuse between May 2016 and September 2016. He was charged in November 2016 with three felony counts of first-degree criminal sexual conduct and a count of aggravated indecent exposure.
He eventually reached a plea agreement with prosecutors that lowered the charges to one felony count of second-degree child abuse and a count of indecent exposure. The deal also called for a sentence of 12 months time served, probation and no requirement to register as a sex offender. Stauffer will be sentenced Tuesday.
The mother of the 5-year-old girl involved in Stauffer’s case is upset that Stauffer won’t have to spend any more time in jail or register as a sex offender. She also says she’s frustrated with the way the prosecutor’s office handled the case.
“I can’t change what happened to my daughter and I can’t really change anything about the (case) up to this point, but I feel like it’s so irresponsible to just put these people out there and not give anybody any warning,” the mother, who Target 8 is not identifying to protect the victim’s identity, said.
A change.org petition asking Ionia County Circuit Court Judge Suzanne Kreeger to require Stauffer to register as a sex offender has garnered thousands of signatures. The mother did not create the petition, but hopes it will sway the judge’s decision.
Legal experts say that is unlikely.
“The whole idea of a judiciary is to not get caught up in the emotions of the moment,” Western Michigan University Cooley Law Distinguished Professor Emeritus Curt Benson explained. “I understand people feel very passionately about this because we’re all very protective of children, especially the children in our community, but at the same time, we expect our judges to have some professional detachment and to look at the bigger picture and not get caught up in the political whims.”
The judge cannot comment on an ongoing case.
Ionia County Prosecutor Kyle Butler said he cannot go into the details of this particular case, but explained there are various reasons why a plea deal may be necessary.
“This plea agreement was struck after about a year of plea negotiation,” he wrote in a statement to Target 8. “It was struck after many other efforts to have him plea, which included prison and registration under (the Sex Offender Registry Act), fell through. It was struck after the case evolved and more information was presented to all parties. It was struck with careful consideration to all factors and parties involved after review with many professionals and prosecutors very familiar with these types of cases. It was struck after pre-trial motions were heard and ruled on by the court.”
Butler also said Stauffer will have the option to withdraw the plea if the judge requires him to register as a sex offender, in which case the case would go to trial, where Butler believes the prosecution would lose.
“If the defendant is found not guilty, then there will be no record for people to check on ICHAT and he will absolutely be able to volunteer, coach, and all the other dangers the petition lists,” his statement said.
>>PDF: Full statement from Butler
The girl’s mother said Butler told her he wanted to spare her daughter the trauma of testifying at trial in front of her abuser, but according to the mom, the girl was prepared and willing to testify and had been to court several times for “test runs.”
“She knows the details and she knows the story and she doesn’t change those details so I feel like in that sense, she’s a reliable witness because she knows what she knows. You’re not going to change that. She may be scared, but she said she wanted to (testify), she knew what it would entail,” the mother said. “It’s a horrible thing that she would have to do, but she was willing to do it, and if, in the end, it saves other children or keeps them safer, it’s one of those things that’s worth doing.”
Even if the case does go to trial and Stauffer is acquitted, the girl’s mother still thinks it would be worth it.
“Yeah, maybe a jury would not find him guilty, but then I could tell my daughter, I fought for you to the very end,” she said.
The mother plans to give a victim impact statement at the sentencing hearing, which she hopes will convince the judge to impose a sex offender registration requirement.
Even if it doesn’t persuade the judge, Professor Benson said the statements can still serve a higher purpose.
“You look at a guy like (former sports doctor Larry) Nassar, who’s a bit of a psychopath and probably really has no feelings, but some defendants actually feel remorseful and to force them to stand there and listen to the impact their crime has had on the victim actually sinks in to a lot of defendants.”
Benson also said it would be logistically impossible to take every case to trial and to keep that in mind when looking at someone’s criminal background.
“When you see a felony on a record, 90 to 85 percent of the time, that was pled down from a higher charge. So with any particular conviction, typically the accusation was more serious,” he explained.
Whatever the outcome, the girl’s mother is now prepared to help her daughter move on and heal.
“I feel like her biggest impact is coming,” she said of the effect the trauma has had on her daughter.
Target 8 reached out to Stauffer and his attorney, but they had no comment.
**Correction: Based on information provided by Prosecutor Butler, a previous version of this article stated Stauffer pleaded guilty only to second-degree child abuse. Butler later said Stauffer pleaded guilty to both child abuse and indecent exposure. We have updated the text to reflect the change.