Scannell seeks dismissal of indictment in Cook County sexual misconduct case
Last Thursday, the lawyer for embattled Cook County Attorney Tim Scannell asked a judge to dismiss a grand jury indictment charging the small county’s top prosecutor with two counts of criminal sexual conduct regarding his involvement with a teenage girl.
Joe Tamburino argued that the special prosecutor in the case erred in grand jury proceedings and said that evidence does not support that Scannell’s physical relationship with a 17-year-old girl was illegal. But special prosecutor Thomas Heffelfinger disputed those contentions, arguing that proper procedures were followed and that jurors correctly found probable cause to indict Scannell on the two felony counts.
Judge Shaun Floerke took the defense’s motion for dismissal under advisement. He said he will issue a ruling by April 11.
Attorneys made it clear at the hearing that the case boils down to whether Scannell, now 48, was in a “position of authority” over the girl at the time of sexual contact. The age of consent in Minnesota is 16, but prosecutors can bring charges in special circumstances where the victim is younger than 18 and the adult is more than four years older.
“There are things that people consider to be immoral, but that does not make it illegal,” Tamburino said. “A position of authority did not exist. Period.”
“There is not dispute that he previously helped her academically, coached her in tennis and was a family friend,” he added, “but all of that is inconsequential. A position of authority had to exist at the time of the acts, and it did not.”
Heffelfinger rebutted Tamburino’s assertions. He said Scannell had known the girl since she was in third grade. He was her soccer and tennis coach, gave her guitar lessons, helped her with her homework and gave her advice on college planning, all in addition to his role as county attorney.
“If that’s not a position of authority, I don’t know what is,” he said.
Heffelfinger said the alleged sexual conduct occurred in the form of kissing and touching of private parts. The girl testified before the grand jury that they were driving around in Scannell’s van discussing college on two separate occasions in August 2012 when they parked and engaged in the acts, the prosecutor said.
Later, Scannell sent her emails acknowledging that they needed to stop the physical relationship because of his position, Heffelfinger said.
“By spring 2012, he may no longer have been her coach, but that did not stop him from being a father figure and a mentor to her,” Heffelfinger said. “The defendant wants the court to believe that that’s some kind of switch you can turn on and off.”
Tamburino also sought dismissal of the charges on claims that Heffelfinger mishandled grand jury proceedings. He said jurors were confused about the law and did not understand the “position of authority” requirement in indicting Scannell.He alleged that Heffelfinger also prejudiced the jury by admitting into evidence the harassment restraining order the girl’s parents filed against Scannell in December 2012, and also the criminal complaint against Daniel Schlienz. Schlienz was successfully prosecuted by Scannell on criminal sexual conduct charges in December 2011. After his conviction, he entered the county attorney’s office and shot Scannell several times.
“The evidence admitted to a grand jury should be the same type of evidence at a trial,” Tamburino said.
Heffelfinger, however, said jurors were properly instructed about the law and how to use the documents. Furthermore, the Schlienz complaint was necessary to demonstrate to jurors that Scannell understood the legal ramifications of having a relationship with a teenage girl.
“The defendant knew exactly what he was doing,” Heffelfinger said. “Having sex with someone 17 when you’re 46 is illegal. He prosecuted cases like that.”
Scannell has been on medical leave from the Cook County Attorney’s Office since October. His term expires at the end of this year.
Although it is a Cook County case, proceedings are being held at the St. Louis County Courthouse in Duluth after both parties in November agreed to a change of venue.