Appeals Nixed in Sexual Assault Cases

Date: 2000-12-27
Source: News Miner

Appeals Nixed in Sexual Assault Cases

By Dan Rice
News-Miner [Alaska]
Downloaded December 27, 2003

The Alaska Court of Appeals rejected the appeals of a former Baptist pastor and his son who were both convicted of sexual crimes in separate cases.

Opinions released on Christmas Eve rejected the appeals of Richard Cook, 51, and James Thunderhawk, 22.

Cook was convicted in a 1999 case of 11 counts of sexual abuse of a minor for the molestation of an adopted teenage girl while he was serving as a pastor in Ruby.

Thunderhawk was convicted in a 2001 case of four counts of first-degree sexual assault and two counts of third-degree assault for the rape of a teenage girl at knifepoint in a Fairbanks residence.

Cook is serving a 15-year prison sentence and Thunderhawk a 19-year term.

Thunderhawk was part of 10-child household under the care of Cook and his wife, who lived in Ruby while performing missionary work.

During Cook's trial, the prosecution presented evidence that the Cooks routinely beat the children, most of whom were adopted. In some cases, the Cooks used a special wooden board and warned the children not to tell anyone or they would get beaten worse, Wednesday's opinion states.

On appeal, Cook's attorney argued that Judge Mark Wood should not have allowed the prosecution to present evidence about the beatings because it served no purpose other than to damage Cook's character in front of the jury.

The appeals court, however, ruled that Wood was correct in allowing the testimony because it enabled the prosecution to assert a reason for the victim not immediately reporting the molestation. The testimony about the beating served a greater probative value in the case than it did a prejudicial one against the defendant, the court ruled, citing the common standard in interpreting whether certain testimony should be allowed.

The court also rejected Cook's claim that his sentence of 15 years to serve was excessive, upholding all the rulings Wood made in sentencing Cook.

The sexual abuse took place from October 1997 through April 1999.

About two years later, his son was alone in a Fairbanks residence off Peger Road with a 16-year-old girl. He was convicted of threatening her with an 8-inch knife, telling her he would cut her with it if she did not submit to sex, then sexually assaulting her several times.

Thunderhawk argued on appeal that Judge Ralph Beistline should not have allowed testimony that Thunderhawk had recently run away from the Northstar Center halfway house, evidence the prosecution used to verify the girl was indeed the victim because she testified to remembering him telling her about walking away from the facility.

The Court of Appeals, however, ruled that the evidence was more probative to the case than prejudicial against Thunderhawk. The court also rejected Thunderhawk's claim that testimony from a DNA analyst unfairly suggested that a defendant had a burden in trying to prove their innocence when the burden is always on the prosecution to prove a case.

In another opinion released Wednesday, the appeals court also rejected an appeal from Steven J. Basurto, 43, who was convicted of raping a woman at knifepoint in his truck after giving her a ride from a Fairbanks bar in 1999.

On appeal, his main point was a claim that Judge Charles Pengilly unfairly allowed evidence to be presented during trial that he previously assaulted three other women. However, the Court of Appeals ruled that this evidence was correctly allowed because "the facts of the prior assaults showed a pattern of behavior that significantly paralleled the assault in this case."

Basurto is serving a 35-year prison sentence.

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