A sobbing Elissa Schuster, facing a mandatory life sentence for a rape conviction, contended yesterday she didn't sexually assault a 4-year-old girl in sending nude images of the child to a stranger via the Internet.
At the end of an emotional two-hour hearing in Lucas County Common Pleas Court, Judge Ruth Ann Franks imposed a mandatory sentence of life in prison for rape and four-year sentences on convictions for pandering obscenity involving a minor and illegal use of a minor in nudity-oriented material.
The sentences were ordered to run consecutively.
Schuster will be eligible to seek parole in 18 years. She will not be allowed to ask the court for early release from the sentences.
Her attorney, Frank Policelli, asked the court for concurrent sentences, in part, because he felt she was remorseful and she wouldn't commit any similar crimes again.
But Judge Franks said several factors called for consecutive sentences, including the serious harm done to the victim, that the conduct was the worst form of the offense, and the defendant didn't show genuine remorse.
Schuster took nude photos of the child, including one in which she sexually assaulted the victim. She sent the images via the Internet to a stranger in Tampa, with whom she had developed an online relationship and believed to be a National Football League player.
Judge Franks read the contents of the instant-message dialogue between Schuster and the stranger in which she complies with his requests to transmit suggestive photos of the victim and the sexual assault.
The transcripts include the stranger promising to give Schuster a ring, jersey, and tickets to a game in return for sending the images. In agreeing to send the photos, she asked whether the stranger was a police officer and hesitated in complying with the requests because she didn't want anyone to think she was a pedophile.
"You had the opportunity on that night to do something to terminate that Internet conversation. You could have taken your hand and pressed the delete key. You could have used your hands to exit the chat room. You could have you used your hand and immediately called police to inform them you were talking to some pervert," Judge Franks said.
"When I view Ms. Schuster, there are certain things I see in her. I see a young woman who, I think, has little or no self-worth. If she valued herself, she wouldn't have engaged in all these things," the judge said.
The defendant wept quietly as the victim's father told Judge Franks the actions of Schuster have scarred his daughter, now 5, and that she sometimes displays unusual behavior when she plays, which he believes is trauma from the abuse.
He asked that Schuster be given maximum and consecutive sentences because "she will never be a decent member of society."
Judge Franks said the Internet offers an abundance of information for useful means, but can also be a "curse" because it can assist pedophiles to prey on children and others who desire sexual gratification from pornography.
"Those people who exploit these children by taking such photos and publishing these acts, which are unspeakable, have to be prosecuted," she said.
J. Tracy Sniderhan, a Lucas County assistant prosecutor, said the consecutive sentences were warranted because the defendant engaged in three separate and distinct conscious acts in assaulting the child, taking the photo, and transmitting the image on the Internet.
Schuster gave a lengthy statement before she was sentenced, breaking into tears several times. She admitted to taking nude photographs of the victim, but denied the sexual assault.
"I accept the punishment I am given for the two crimes that I did commit, but I will never come to the acceptance of the punishment for a conviction of rape," she said.
Schuster entered a plea in April, but withdrew from the agreement on May 26. She fired the attorneys who had been representing her since the indictment in September, 2004, and hired Mr. Policelli of Utica, N.Y.
The agreement reached with prosecutors in April included a sentencing range of 3 years to 18 years.
However, Mr. Policelli took the case to trial in July, arguing that his client didn't rape the girl, and the photos didn't show that she inserted her finger into the victim.
When the guilty verdicts were returned, the attorney criticized the jury for what he believed was a wrong conviction and accused them of intentionally wanting to convict Schuster.
Judge Franks yesterday addressed the comments Mr. Policelli made to the news media on July 28. She praised the jurors for what she called thoughtful and focused deliberations.
The panel heard evidence for two days, and then deliberated through the afternoon, breaking in the evening and returning the next morning to continue deliberations. They reached their verdicts about two hours later.
"It was a long deliberation process with thoughtful thinking and the application of the law," the judge said.
In the sex offender classification hearing for Schuster, Judge Franks accepted the recommendation of a Court Diagnostic Treatment Center psychologist and determined that she was a sexually oriented offender, which is the least restrictive category.
Schuster must register with the county sheriff's office annually for 10 years and provide notification anytime she moves when she's released from prison.
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