* December 18, 2016 Update by Terri Jo Neff
The case against James Robert Decker has been reassigned to judge Wallace Hoggatt after judge John Kelliher objected last month to provisions of a plea deal presented to the Court. Kelliher -and the victim’s mother- expressed dissatisfaction with the prison sentence called for in the agreement, suggesting the prison term should be longer.
Defense attorney Kevin Oursland noted during a December 16 hearing that the October plea deal has been withdrawn and a new agreement has not been reached. Therefore, judge Hoggatt scheduled the case for a four day trial beginning January 17, 2017, with a pre-trial conference on January 6 to address any issues that need to be resolved before trial.
“It turns my stomach . . . Mr Decker strikes me as a predator”
Defense requests new judge; trial date yet to be set
BISBEE – When deputies escorted James Robert Decker into the Cochise County Superior Court on November 14, the 39 year old Army reservist expected to be sentenced to three years in prison for sexual misconduct with a 15 year old girl. That was the sentence called for in the plea deal negotiated between Decker’s appointed attorney and the Cochise County Attorney’s Office.
However, the sentencing hearing was postponed after the victim’s mother and the judge expressed dissatisfaction with terms of the plea agreement. Judge John Kelliher noted that the terms of the proposed sentence “turns my stomach” and suggested Decker “deserves to be gone for a lot longer.” He also commented that Decker “strikes me as a predator.”
Kelliher then instructed Sara Ransom of the county attorney’s office – who was filling in at the hearing for prosecutor Daniel Akers – to confer with the victim’s family about the issues with the sentencing provision and attempt renegotiation with Decker and his defense attorney.
The parties appeared before Kelliher again on November 17 at which time the judge formally rejected the plea agreement. Although it is not common for a plea bargain to be rejected at the sentencing stage, Kelliher’s decision is permitted by the Arizona Rules of Criminal Procedure, which stipulate a judge “shall not be bound by any provision in the plea agreement regarding the sentence or the term and conditions of probation” if the judge “rejects the provision as inappropriate.”
With no plea agreement in place, the case against Decker will now move forward to trial and likely require the victim to testify. Under Arizona’s Rules of Evidence, any comments Decker made during plea negotiations and the fact he accepted a plea deal cannot be used as evidence against him. Judge Kelliher, however, will no longer preside over the case due to a request for a new judge filed by Kevin Oursland, Decker’s public defender.
Once a new judge is assigned the parties will meet again and a trial date will be set. In the meantime Decker remains in custody at the Cochise County jail in Bisbee, where he has been held on a no-bail order since his July 30 arrest.
Detective posed as victim during text message exchange
According to court records, Decker worked at a public riding stable on Fort Huachuca. That is where he met the girl and initiated an “inappropriate relationship” which eventually led the girl’s parents to confront Decker and order him to leave their daughter alone. On July 22 the parents contacted Sierra Vista Police Department when they discovered Decker and the girl had continued to communicate. Veteran detective Thomas Ransford was assigned to investigate the complaint.
Court documents reveal that Ransford interviewed the victim and also obtained parental consent to use the girl’s cell phone in order “to continue a conversation with Decker.” Over a two day period, Decker exchanged incriminating text messages with Ransford, who was posing as the girl. In the messages, Decker discussed a “previous sexual incident” that occurred with the girl at his home, and made explicit statements about future sexual activities he was planning.
Ransford – still posing as the girl – sent a final message to Decker on July 30 after which Decker drove to The Mall at Sierra Vista expecting meet the teen and drive her to his residence. He was pulled over by police instead and arrested.
Decker was arraigned July 31 at the Sierra Vista Justice Court at which time judge Timothy Dickerson ordered him held without bail pending trial on charges of sexual conduct with a minor, sexual exploitation of a minor, and luring a minor for sexual exploitation.
The case was transferred to judge Kelliher’s court on August 4 after a county grand jury indicted Decker. Ransford would later obtain asearch warrantto retrieve messages, emails, photos and videos from Decker’s cell phone. Ransford says he has identified one other possible victim and that case is being handled separately.
Victims have Arizona constitutional right to be heard, but . . .
According to Judy Lutgring, an attorney who previously worked for Cochise County’s public defenders and legal defenders offices, the Arizona Constitution grants crime victims several rights, including “the right to comment on plea deals and sentencing.” In addition, state law requires a prosecutor to “confer with the victim about the disposition of a criminal offense” in order to hear the victim’s opinion.
However, she notes the prosecutor must ultimately decide what action to take in a case based on the interests of the people of Arizona, and not solely on the wishes of a victim. “Attorneys consider many factors” when entering into a negotiated plea agreement instead of going to trial, explains Lutgring, a past president of Arizona Attorneys for Criminal Justice. One of those factors includes whether “the victim or defendant or witnesses might not be able to withstand the scrutiny and pressure at trial.”
In a recent interview from the county jail in Bisbee, Decker noted he served in Iraq in 2003-2004, and that at the time of his arrest he held a medical position in the U.S. Army Reserves. He previously lived in Arizona and moved to the Sierra Vista area with his wife and family in 2013. The couple divorced in 2014.
Decker faces up to 20 years in prison if found guilty at trial of all charges.
Contact reporter Terri Jo Neff at 520-508-3660 and firstname.lastname@example.org