Most people won’t care that John W. Strickling will die in prison.
The 67-year-old Alaskan resident pleaded guilty earlier this year to sexually abusing a family member, and his young victim — a girl under 13 years old — suffered years of abuse “as long as she can remember” because of him.
Prosecutors said the abuse only ended because the girl had the courage to report it to her mother, who in turn alerted authorities. Even Strickling’s attorney said he wouldn’t dare minimize the seriousness of the offenses, which Strickling openly admitted to during a recorded phone call with a Juneau police investigator.
But sentencing him proved not to be so easy: Strickling is dying from chronic heart and lung problems. During his sentencing hearing Tuesday in Juneau Superior Court, his family begged Judge Louis Menendez to show mercy, saying he only has a short time left before he dies.
The reality of Strickling’s failing health forced attorneys and the judge to grapple with the humanitarian concerns that arise out of placing a dying man behind bars, and also to contemplate the point of incarcerating someone who is physically incapable of re-offending.
“The goal obviously is to spend resources on incarcerating people who do in fact represent danger to the community, that they do in fact represent dangers to the victims that they victimized before,” Assistant District Attorney Angie Kemp said. “I don’t think the same can be said here.”
But to the defense’s surprise, Kemp requested Strickling receive 12 years in prison with seven years suspended — five years to serve — rather than the minimum requirement of two years. Assistant Public Defender Eric Hedland said he was under the impression that prosecutors would be seeking the minimum, as he was. Two years would mean Strickling would actually get out of jail in a month or two because he would receive credit for time already served and for good behavior at Lemon Creek Correctional Center.
When the judge accepted Kemp’s higher-than-expected recommendation, one of Strickling’s sons lashed out in anger in the courtroom.
“It’s not going to help anybody, our family needs to heal,” Jesse Strickling complained loudly to Hedland.
Moments later, the younger Strickling was kicked out of the room when he yelled at the judge, “I hope you all sleep well at night.”
Members of Strickling’s family — the one son in court, another son over the phone and a daughter who penned a letter to the court — had asked the judge to release Strickling into their care so he could live out his last days with them. The family did not deny the things their father had done, but said it doesn’t benefit anyone to have him in jail.
“What happened was and is a tragedy. It has left a scar on all our hearts. But what you might not be aware of is that our father was not always of unsound mind,” Strickling’s 25-year-old daughter’s wrote in a letter read aloud during the hearing, adding that she remembers her father of being “loving, caring and soft-spoken.” “We want the chance to spend the last months of our father’s life with him. We all as a family need closure before he dies.”
In the courtroom, Strickling appeared frail from being unable to eat solid foods. His white hair was unkempt because his arthritis keeps him from brushing it.
His physical ailments stem from a life of poverty, which has taken its toll, the family said. They said he suffered head trauma when he was young, and that he had a crippling heart attack about six years ago.
Mentally, he has serious issues, the prosecutors said, noting that Strickling used to sleep in a wooden box similar to a coffin and shocked himself to protect himself from witches.
The court earlier ordered that Strickling be evaluated for mental competency at Alaska Psychiatric Institute in Anchorage. A doctor concluded he had persistent religiously-themed delusions, but concluded he was mentally competent to enter a guilty plea. Legally, being mentally competent means that Strickling was able to understand the legal proceedings, including the charges against him.
Strickling also has Post Traumatic Stress Disorder — he served in the Vietnam War and was honorably discharged in 1967.
His mental and physical condition worsened in prison, his son Jesse testified on Tuesday, and his father could no longer even lift himself off a toilet seat.
“Pretty tragic, if you ask me,” he said.
Jesse cared for his father in the months preceding his father’s arrest in Nome in October 2012. Jesse said he heard on the radio that a $100,000 warrant was out for his father’s arrest. He informed his dad, and Strickling turned himself in to Alaska State Troopers.
“No one was hiding,” the son stressed.
Since Strickling does not have a criminal history, he was facing a presumptive sentencing term of two to 12 years in prison for the class ‘C’ felony of attempted sexual abuse of a minor in the second degree.
ADA Kemp said if the case went to trial she probably could have convicted Strickling of a more serious felony that she originally charged him with: sexual abuse of a minor in the first degree.
Kemp agreed to reduce the charge (and dismiss four other felony counts in accordance with a plea deal) in light of the fact that Strickling does not pose a threat to society and the low probability he will re-offend.
“The reason the state entered into this agreement is primarily due to those things being very low in terms of plausibility,” she told the judge. “Frankly, from the state’s perspective it seems ... nearly impossible that Mr. Strickling would re-offend in the same way that he had done before with the victim in this case. I think that physically he’s prevented from doing that.”
Kemp said the victim and her mother, who did not attend Tuesday’s hearing, did not provide much guidance in the way of what kind of jail sentence they were seeking for Strickling. But they did make it clear that they did not want to “exact vengeance,” she said.
The Empire does not name victims of sexual abuse and is not saying precisely how the defendant and victim are related in order to protect her identity.
Without a “crying victim” demanding more jail time, Strickling’s attorney questioned why the two years wouldn’t be enough to satisfy the isolation factor the court must consider in fashioning a sentence.
Hedland said any more jail time for Strickling would be a “guaranteed death sentence.”
“These circumstances are unique,” the attorney said. “I doubted at times he would even make it to sentencing.”
Hedland proposed that the elder Strickling be released to Jesse Strickling, who lives in Nome, away from the victim.
The judge rejected that proposal, saying that the focus of the case should be on the victim. Menendez said her voice was the only voice not being heard on Tuesday.
“Victims of sexual abuse carry that abuse for their entire lives,” Menendez said.
Menendez emphasized the fact that the young girl was not victimized once or twice, but subjected to repeated assaults to the point where she learned not to fight back. Strickling admitted to penetrating the girl with his fingers from 2002 to 2009 in both Juneau and Ketchikan.
Menendez also adopted the state’s recommendation of 10 years probation and no contact with minors. Strickling will be required to receive sex offender treatment and to register as such if he is released before his death.
The judge said he is sorry Strickling has mental and physical issues, but that he needs to send a message that the conduct was unacceptable and requires jail time.
Menendez said: “The message has to be sent out, in fact, that if you do such acts with a child — despite the fact that you may suffer from illnesses, despite the fact that you have no priors, despite the fact that you served honorably in the United States military — you still are looking at jail time.”
• Contact reporter Emily Russo Miller at 523-2263 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.