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Juneau man pleads guilty to assault

Posted: December 18, 2011 - 12:15am

A Juneau heavyweight boxer pleaded guilty and was sentenced Thursday for placing a woman in a choke hold and choking her unconscious in a downtown alley last spring.

Ronald Rayburn Wheat, 44, who fought in boxing matches at local bars from 2005 to 2009 under the nickname Ronald “Raven” Wheat, according to Empire archives, pleaded guilty to two counts of fourth-degree assault, both class ‘A’ misdemeanor offenses.

Juneau Superior Court Judge Philip Pallenberg accepted a plea bargain sentencing Wheat to a total of 18 months in jail: one year (the maximum punishment for the charge) for the first count, and six months for the second. The time is to be served consecutively without probation. The state asked for 90 days to submit a claim for restitution.

Wheat originally faced more serious felony charges. He was indicted by a grand jury Dec. 3 for second-degree assault, a class ‘B’ felony that carries a maximum of 10 years imprisonment, and third-degree assault, a class ‘C’ felony with a maximum sentence of 5 years.

Those charges were reduced after the alleged victim of the April 5, 2010, attack made drunken outbursts in court during the second day of the jury trial Tuesday, prompting Pallenberg to declare a mistrial.

The woman — who Pallenberg noted was “visibly intoxicated” after observing that her speech was slurred, she was unsteady on her feet as she walked to the witness stand, and that he could smell the alcohol on her six feet away from the stand — revealed to the jury during cross examination that Wheat has a prior sexual abuse conviction when she was specifically instructed not to, according to an electronic recording of the trial.

“That (expletive) testified (during the grand jury hearing) that he never sexually abused anybody before and his first crime was sexual abuse in the second degree,” she had exclaimed Tuesday.

Pallenberg agreed with Wheat’s lawyer Eric Hedland that the statement could not simply be dismissed, and that it wouldn’t be enough for the judge to instruct the jury to disregard the statement.

“I think one can’t unring the bell,” Pallenberg said after deliberating. “I can tell them to disregard it, and I don’t think I can — while it’s an interesting thought to tell them that it’s not true — I don’t think that that is something that I can appropriately do.”

He added, “I don’t think that Mr. Wheat can really have a fair trial here in light of that information being put in front of the jury.”

Assistant District Attorney Amy Williams told Pallenberg Thursday though the state would like to see a harsher sentence given Wheat’s criminal history, they would not attempt to bring it to trial again after losing confidence in the case.

“I think that’s the basis of what you’re seeing here today,” she said.

District Attorney David Brower elaborated outside the courtroom that the woman “was intoxicated, she had an outburst that caused the trial to end, and her demeanor after that was such that the state didn’t feel it could go forward. It’s unfortunate, but that’s pretty much what happened.”

The woman, 49, who had been battling alcoholism and attends alcohol and mental health counseling twice a week, told the Empire in an interview at her residence that she regrets what happened during the trial.

“I was really stressed out. When I knew the trial was coming up I couldn’t barely handle it,” she said tearfully. “I should have been sober that day. I think that would have gotten a stronger conviction.”

Last spring, the woman, who lived in the same apartment complex as Wheat and his girlfriend, witnessed him being thrown out of his girlfriend’s place by police, according to her testimony. She saw him return to their apartment complex, and she confronted him in the laundry room. She said he choked her outside the complex “in a wrestler’s grip” until she blacked out and woke up topless. She sustained several injuries from the attack and was treated at the hospital.

The two fourth-degree assault charges against Wheat were for causing physical injury to the woman with his arms, and for placing her in fear of actual injury with his arms.

Pallenberg said Thursday that the facts of the case will never fully come to light since the trial was interrupted, but that he thought it was appropriate Wheat be sentenced as a “worst offender,” meaning he would receive the maximum sentence (one year in this case) for the most serious offense, which was actually causing physical injury to the woman.

Hedland noted in court that one way that the sentence can be looked at is that Wheat was sentenced as a worst offender, plus an additional six months.

• Contact reporter Emily Russo Miller at 523-2263 or at emily.miller@juneauempire.com.

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