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Woman convicted in connection to field fire gets suspension of sentence

Posted: April 17, 2013 - 12:03am
Ashley Rae Johnston, 19, appears in Juneau Superior Court on Tuesday for sentencing  in connection to a fire at Adair-Kennedy Memorial Park last summer.  Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Ashley Rae Johnston, 19, appears in Juneau Superior Court on Tuesday for sentencing in connection to a fire at Adair-Kennedy Memorial Park last summer.

A 19-year-old woman convicted of felony criminal mischief for her role in the fire at Adair-Kennedy Memorial Park last summer caught a break on Tuesday when a judge agreed to suspend the imposition of her sentence.

That means the felony conviction cannot be erased from Ashley Rae Johnston’s record, but her sentencing will be set aside if she follows probation requirements for the next three years.

“I want to give Ms. Johnston the most incentives possible to stay sober ... and become a successful member of the community,” Juneau Superior Court Judge Philip Pallenberg said.

One hitch: she does have to serve four months in jail as a condition of her probation. That seemed to be the judge’s compromise between the attorneys’ contrasting requests — prosecutors wanted her to serve a total of seven months plus more than two years in suspended time, while the defense asked for the SIS and zero time to serve.

A jury acquitted Johnston of arson after a week-long trial in February, but she was found guilty of criminal mischief and a misdemeanor trespass charge. Felony criminal mischief can carry up to five years in prison, but since this was Johnston’s first felony conviction, she was facing a zero to two year presumptive sentencing range.

She was one of three people charged in connection to the June 19 fire at the city-owned park, which officials said caused between $20,000 and $30,000 worth of damages to equipment being used to replace the turf football field. Her codefendants, Ryan M. Martin, 24, and Dillon P. West, 25, are slated to stand trial in July.

During Tuesday’s hearing, Pallenberg agreed with Assistant District Attorney Amy Williams that the crime was extremely serious, calling it “a crime against the whole community.” He added that deterrence of Johnston and others and community condemnation for such crimes are “substantial factors” in fashioning a sentence.

The judge additionally sided with Williams that the three sentencing mitigators proposed by the defense did not apply in this case. Johnston’s attorney Assistant Public Defender Timothy Ayer had argued his client only played a minor role in the offense; that being a youthful defendant, her conduct was influenced by those more mature than she; and that she has extraordinary prospects for rehabilitation.

But, “on the other side of the coin,” as the judge put it, Johnston’s rehabilitation was an important factor given her young age and lack of criminal history as an adult.

Pallenberg said he decided he could either make an example out of Johnston, or she could make an example out of herself by going on to succeed on probation and in life.

The judge also imposed a 30-day jail sentence for the misdemeanor conviction to run concurrent, or at the same time as the 120 days she must serve for the criminal mischief conviction.

Johnston was also ordered to pay restitution as part of probation. The state still has 90 days to determine how much she will owe for the damage caused to the field. If her codefendants are found guilty, they will split the cost of restitution, Pallenberg said.

Other probation conditions are for Johnston to obtain her G.E.D., to receive treatment for alcohol and to have no contact with her codefendants.

Johnston’s attorney Ayer said he plans to appeal and will move to stay her incarceration as the appeal is pending. Williams said she would object.

The judge gave the attorneys a week from Tuesday to file those motions before Johnston has to report to jail on April 23.

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

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