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Supreme Court upholds Plankinton man's conviction for 26 sex offenses

PLANKINTON -- The South Dakota Supreme Court issued a decision Wednesday upholding the conviction of a Plankinton man convicted of 26 sexual offenses involving two children under the age of 16.

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PLANKINTON - The South Dakota Supreme Court issued a decision Wednesday upholding the conviction of a Plankinton man convicted of 26 sexual offenses involving two children under the age of 16.

The decision, the court's first of the year, was filed in response to an appeal by Christian Thomas, who was sentenced to 87 years in prison on May 6, 2017. Thomas appealed his conviction by arguing that the court that tried him should not have allowed certain evidence against him and should have granted a mistrial due to an alleged prejudice involving the court's bailiff.

Thomas was convicted of 26 counts that included seven counts of fourth-degree rape, eight counts of sexual contact with a child under 16, five counts of sexual exploitation of a minor, three counts of aiding and abetting fourth-degree rape, one count of aiding and abetting sexual contact with a child under 16 and two counts of possession of child pornography.

The crimes involved two minor victims, as well as Thomas' friend Larry Unruh, also of Plankinton, who was sentenced to 20 years in prison in November 2015 for sexual contact with and rape of a minor.

The events in question occurred between 2008 and 2014. Thomas was charged in 2015 and pleaded not guilty to all charges, leading the case to go to trial.

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Thomas, represented by Mitchell-based attorney Douglas Papendick, raised two issues in his appeal. The first appealed admission of evidence that the state used during the trial. That evidence included Thomas' internet search history, which included searches containing terms that involved group sex and sex with minors, as well as evidence of Thomas announcing that he was going to give himself a genital piercing and proceeding to do so, which was deemed by the court in a pretrial hearing as relevant to establishing a timeline of the sexual offenses and the the age of one of the victims on the dates on which the offenses occurred.

The Supreme Court cited in its decision a 2013 case that established the precedent that circuit courts' decision to admit certain evidence can only be overturned if there's evidence that that court abused its discretion, as well as a state law that allows evidence of uncharged acts to be presented if it has a purpose other than to prove a person's character. The Supreme Court ruled that both types of evidence did have such purposes and that the trial court didn't abuse its discretion.

The appeal also addressed the court's denial of a mistrial. Thomas motioned for a mistrial during the third day of the trial, having learned the night before that bailiff Lola Cranny had recently worked for Aurora County State's Attorney John Steele, the prosecutor in Thomas' case.

Cranny testified that she had worked part-time for Steele as a secretary in the state's attorney's office before retiring in December of 2015, and that she also helped Steele with tax preparations and filled in for the office's new secretary occasionally in 2016 following her retirement. The Supreme Court's decision stated that "Cranny testified that she did not do any 'work on county cases' following her retirement in 2015, only recognized one or two of the jurors, and none of the jurors were clients of Steele's law or tax practice during the time she worked for Steele," although she did speak with two other jurors about being a church organist and what she did when no trials were taking place.

The circuit court denied the motion for mistrial, arguing that there wasn't enough evidence to show that anything had happened to improperly influence the case. In its decision, the Supreme Court affirmed the trial court's decision, citing a 2001 case that set the precedent that mistrial denials can also only be overturned if there's evidence that the trial court abused its discretion. Because the state was able to prove that Cranny hadn't spoken to any of the jurors about the case or having worked for Steele, the Supreme Court affirmed the denial of a mistrial.

With his convictions upheld, Thomas, who was 43 at the time of his sentencing, will remain in prison, where he has served just under one year and eight months of his 87-year sentence.

Related Topics: U.S. SUPREME COURT
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