first deal rejected by judge who said defendant “deserves to be gone for a lot longer”
BISBEE – It took two county grand juries, two judges, and two plea agreements, but 39 year-old James Robert Decker is heading to state prison for8.5 yearsfor sexual conduct with two teenage girls. Decker, who was sentenced March17, will also be required to serve 10 years probation and register as a sex offender upon his release from prison.
Decker, an U.S. Army Reservist who worked at Fort Huachuca, met both girls on base. He was initially indicted by a county grand jury in August 2016 for sexual activity with a 15 year-old girl.
In October, Decker pleaded guilty to five felony counts as part of a deal that called for him to serve no more than three years in prison. However, the deal was rejected November 17 by Cochise County Superior Court judge John Kelliher, who said at the time that Decker “deserves to be gone for a lot longer.”
The case was then assigned to judge Wallace Hoggatt. But before another plea bargain could be negotiated, Daniel Akers of the Cochise County Attorney’s Office presented new evidence to a second county grand jury that Decker had sexual contact with another underage girl. On December 22, Decker was indicted on 24 additional counts, for a total of 30 felony charges.
Decker signed anew plea deal December 30, pleading guilty to six counts related to the 15 year-old and one count of having sexual intercourse with the other girl “for the first time” in late 2015. The age of that victim is not listed, only that she was under 18 at the time.
Per the plea agreement, judge Hoggatt could have sentenced Decker to no less than seven years in prison but no more than ten years, otherwise either party could have backed out of the deal. Hoggatt also had final say on the length of Decker’s term of probation, which could have ranged from no less than four years up to lifetime supervision.
Judge hears several suggestions for length of sentence
Apre-sentence report prepared by Stephanie Schaafof the Cochise County Adult Probation office noted Decker scored as a “Level 1 Low Risk” for purposes of community notice. However, Schaaf still recommended Decker be placed on probation for life and be required to obey special probation conditions due to the nature of his crimes.
During the sentencing hearing, the mother of the 15 year-old asked judge Hoggatt to hand down a 10 year prison sentence and lifetime probation. The mother explained her daughter is on medication and in therapy because of Decker’s actions, and it was the family’s hope Decker “can’t ever manipulate another girl.”
Prosecutor Akers argued that although a psychological evaluation indicated Decker had no predilection or attraction to young girls, the doctor’s findings are “speculation.” Akers also noted that at 39 years old, Decker was more than twice as old as his victims, and that the circumstances called for a 10 year sentence and at least 10 years supervised probation.
Defense attorney Oursland spoke in support of only a seven year sentence and four years of probation, pointing out Decker had no criminal history, had served honorably in the military, and “never attempted to diminish” his responsibility for his unlawful actions. Oursland also pointed out that the doctor who evaluated Decker noted 95-97% of sex offenders with scores matching Decker’s will not be charged with new offenses within five years of release.
Decker also addressed the judge. In a clear but soft voice, he stated he was sorry for the harm he had done and hoped that someday everyone could forgive him, but admitted “I can’t make them forgive me.” He also acknowledged the long term consequences of his choices and actions, stating “this will haunt me for the rest of my life.”
While deliberating on his decision, judge Hoggatt told Decker “you were the adult” and that the sentence being imposed was for Decker’s “victimization” of the girls. The judge explained he found some mitigating factors in support of a lower sentence existed from Decker’s past, but the “emotional harm” to one of the victims was an aggravating factor in support of a longer sentence.
In the end Hoggatt handed down the 8.5 year sentence, which he noted was unintentionally at the midpoint of the sentencing range available in the plea. The judge also conceded “there’s no perfect solution” with sentencing, as one side will think it too lenient and one will think it too harsh.
Detective sent suggestive text messages from victim’s phone
Decker came to the attention of authorities on July 22 when the mother of the 15 year-old girl contacted Sierra Vista PD after learning Decker was communicating with the girl despite being told not to by her parents. Detective Thomas Ransford oversaw the case and at one point utilized the girl’s cell phone to pose as the girl to “continue a conversation with Decker” about meeting for sex.
Officers took Decker into custody July 30 after he arrived at The Mall at Sierra Vista where he expected to pick up the girl. While investigating that case, Ransfordsecured a search warrantto review Decker’s cell phone. Information was uncovered about the second victim, who is now an adult. The detective was able to develop evidence of that relationship, which allowed the county attorney’s office to take the case back to a grand jury for additional charges.
The 8.5 year prison sentence handed down by judge Hoggatt was for six of the seven counts to which Decker pleaded guilty. He must serve 3.5 years for one count of attempted sexual exploitation of a minor followed by another 3.5 years on a second count of the same crime. When those two sentenced are complete, he will begin to serve 1 year prison terms for three counts of sexual conduct. Those three sentences will be served concurrently (at the same time).
Then Decker will serve a final sentence of 6 months for another count of sexual conduct , after which he will be placed on probation on the seventh count which was attempting to lure a minor for sexual exploitation. If Decker should violate the conditions of his 10 year probation term he could be brought before the Court for re-sentencing for up to another 3.75 years in prison.
The other 23 counts of Decker’s indictment were dismissed during sentencing, and Decker was given credit toward his first 3.5 year sentence for 230 days that he has spent in the Cochise County jail since his July 30 arrest. He was also ordered to have no contact with either victim or the victims’ immediate families, and assessed $2386 in restitution to the victim and victim’s insurance company, as well as nearly $1000 in court fines and fees.
Defense attorney Oursland noted Decker hopes to serve his probation in Florida where he has family.
Contact reporter Terri Jo Neff at 520-508-3660 or firstname.lastname@example.org