By Jean Cole
When a Limestone county judge ordered no prison time for an Athens man convicted of rape this week, the victim, her family, prosecutors and others were stunned and angry that a rapist walked free.
"Why go through what I went through for a person who wrecked my life to get off free — no time behind bars?" Courtney Andrews told The News Courier. "I had to share my testimony for three hours and he is jailed for two months and let out? What does this say to all of those scared little boys and girls?"
Austin Clem had served only two months in jail during the space between conviction on Sept. 11 and sentencing.
Two months earlier, a jury had convicted 25-year-old Clem on two counts of second-degree rape and one count of first-degree rape in connection with crimes against Andrews — a neighbor, babysitter and family friend. Sexual abuse began at the home Clem shared with his wife when Andrews was only 13, then escalated to rape, which occurred twice at the home when she was 14 and once at Clem's apartment when she was 18.
When sentencing rolled around Wednesday, the victim and prosecutors and many others fully expected some prison time for Clem. Only the number of years was in question.
Prior to sentencing Wednesday, Deputy District Attorney Jim Ayers Jr. had even stated in open court that Clem had a juvenile record, which he said contained a case of sodomy involving a boy. The incident occurred when Clem was 15 and he was put through a program with the Department of Youth Services.
For reasons unclear, Circuit Judge Jimmy Woodroof Jr. sentenced Clem to 20 years in prison on the first-degree rape conviction but then split the sentence, suspended about 15 years of jail time and ordered Clem to serve two years in community corrections — a form of community-based probation — plus three years of supervised probation, and pay $1,631 in restitution and a $750 bail bond fee. He must also register as a convicted sex offender, maintain a job, attend counseling related to the offense, and have no contact with the victim or her family.
Woodroof ordered Clem to serve 10 years in prison on each of the two counts of second-degree rape, which occurred when the victim was only 14, but both sentences were split to allow him to serve two years in community corrections and three years on probation and will run at the same time as the first-degree rape, thus adding no additional time.
Ayers immediately objected to Woodroof's sentence during Wednesday's hearing, saying the Alabama Code does not allow a first-degree rape sentence to be split to allow time served in community corrections. Woodroof reviewed the matter Thursday, but the sentence stands. The District Attorney's Office is now investigating whether it can appeal the sentence. The Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals could overturn the sentence if it is not one permitted under the code.
Woodroof has declined to comment on the sentence, though it is a rarity for a judge to comment on any sentence conferred.
District Attorney Brian Jones was said to be livid following the sentencing. He initially declined to comment. However, he finally issued a written statement Friday that simply stated the DA's office is looking into an appeal.
The victim, however, has had plenty to say.
"I'm baffled, my family is baffled and the attorneys are baffled," Andrews said.
Like many others, she did not immediately understand the sentence when it was first announced at Wednesday's hearing.
"I did not understand it until we were outside the courtroom Jim (Ayers) explained it to me," she said. "I broke down when he explained it."
She thinks Woodroof believes she was raped but is perplexed by his sentence.
"The judge knows he (Clem) has already gone through the program when he was a minor," Andrews said. "After knowing that, he has still given an illegal sentence."
Andrews said she has relied on her faith in God and her determination not to let Clem destroy her life gets her through the past years. To that end, she is attending college at the University of South Alabama. But, the hometown she once knew holds no nostalgia for her.
"I will never move back to Limestone County or the Tennessee Valley," she said. "The rapes ruined the hometown for me, and now that he is free, I will absolutely not come home."
She hopes the controversy surrounding the sentence will foster awareness.
"If nothing else, this will open eyes to who he (Clem) is and that something needs to be done with the court system in Limestone County," Andrews said. "He (the judge) is putting a guy who sexually abuses and rapes children back into the same town he lives in."
Police did not find probable cause
Following the rape at 18, which Andrews said occurred after she was lured to Clem's apartment under false pretenses, she told a friend then her parents and the matter was reported to Athens Police. Clem admitted to an Athens police investigator that he and Andrews had engaged in sexual intercourse when she was 18 but he said it was consensual. Andrews told police she pushed him away, scratched and bit him and tried to straighten her legs to avoid penetration.
Police did not immediately charge Clem with rape as is sometimes done. They turned the results of their investigation over to the District Attorney's Office. The DA's office presented the case to a grand jury, which formally charged Clem.
The fact that Athens Police did not immediately charge Clem is not unusual, Police Chief Floyd Johnson said.
“For example, this happens in cases where what she said and what he said are different or where each says the incident happened in a different way and we cannot confirm with physical evidence or by a witness. The law requires us to have probable cause that a crime occurred to arrest.
“If police are not 100 percent sure, then they refer the case to the District Attorney's Office.
This takes the question out of it," Johnson said.
In this case, the DA believed there was adequate evidence and, therefore, presented the case to a grand jury, which handed down an indictment or formal charge.
Clem's defense attorney, Dan Totten of Athens, had argued at trial that there was no physical evidence of a fight between Clem and Andrews in connection with the rape in 2011, when she was 18, and there was no DNA evidence. He characterized her as "a woman scorned." The jury, however, believed Andrews' testimony and those who testified on her behalf.
Rita Pfaff, Andrews' friend, testified at trial that Courtney had told her at age 16 about the sexual abuse at 13 and rapes at 14. Pfaff said she witnessed Andrews telephone Clem's wife to tell her and that Clem's wife begged Andrews not to tell police and that she would make sure he never did such a thing again.
Pfaff said Andrews had gone to Clem's apartment when she was 18 because she was lured there under false pretense — the chance of seeing his daughters. Having been a friend of the family and a babysitter as a teen, she loved spending time with the girls.
"He gets released into the free world with a slap on the wrist," Pfaff said. "You don't do this three times and get to go home to three little girls with the chance of doing it again."