Zach Anderson, 19-year-old sex offender, will get a new sentence
Zachary Anderson will get a new sentence.
The 19-year-old’s case has stirred national debate, after the Indiana teen was sentenced to 90 days in jail, five years of probation, and put on the sex offender registry for 25 years in both Michigan and Indiana.
His crime: having sex with a 14-year-old Michigan girl he met online, who told him she was 17 and registered in the adult section of the online dating app.
During sentencing, both the girl and her mother asked Berrien County Judge Dennis Wiley not to punish Anderson.
Now, Judge Wiley is vacating that original sentence on a legal technicality, saying that the prosecutor violated part of Anderson’s plea bargain.
“The Defendant exploited the victim for his own selfish purposes”
But just because Judge Wiley is tossing out Anderson’s sentence, doesn’t mean he thinks he was too hard on Anderson.
“This was not a boyfriend/girlfriend dating relationship, but a one (1) time sexual encounter between strangers where the victim was obviously underage, developmentally and emotionally immature and easily manipulated by the Defendant for his own sexual gratification,” Judge Wiley wrote in his ruling this month.
Throughout the case, Wiley’s remarks have drawn criticism, because he appears to be punishing Anderson for 1) meeting someone online and 2) intending to have casual sex.
“This was anything but a ‘date’ where a person picks up their ‘date’ at their home, takes them out to a dinner and a movie, and drops them off there,” Wiley wrote in the most recent ruling.
The judge says the prosecutor didn't keep his promise
Still, Wiley agreed with Anderson’s defense team, which argued that Berrien County Assistant Prosecutor Gerald Vigansky broke his plea agreement deal with Anderson.
The deal revolves around a special legal exemption for youthful offenders, which lets young adults between 17 to 21 years old keep a clean record if they’ve committed certain lower-level crimes.
Vigansky promised that, if Anderson pled guilty, then the prosecution wouldn’t argue for or against Judge Wiley giving Anderson that exemption.
But during the trial, Vigansky pointed out previous cases where judges had denied that youthful offender exemption, and told Judge Wiley that these cases “all should probably be treated the same way.”
That’s enough reason for Anderson’s sentence to be vacated, the judge ruled.
What’s next for Zachary Anderson?
Anderson’s lawyer, Scott Grabel, says they’ll be back in court Friday for a new bond hearing in front of Judge Wiley.
Even though Anderson’s sentence has been vacated, his conviction still stands, and he’s still currently registered as a sex offender in Indiana and Michigan.
His family is organizing online petitions, giving interviews, and supporting social media campaigns to advocate for Anderson.
They've spoken publicly about how the terms of his probation – plus being on the sex offender registry – affects every aspect of Anderson's life, from stopping the computer science student from owning a cell phone or using the Internet, to forcing him out of the family's home, which is close to a public school.
"The Humane Society of Elkhart denied Zach's application for a cat because he was a sex offender or because of his background check," they wrote on August 5th on the Facebook page "Justice 4 Zach Anderson." "We found someone else to get a cat from. A happy ending to a disappointing day."
Now, a new judge will decide on whether Anderson's conviction, and his sex offender status, should still stand.
Grabel says they’re hoping that the new judge decides to give Anderson the youthful exemption, which would mean he walks out with a clean record – and would no longer be a registered sex offender.
“It’s certainly a positive step in the right direction,” says Grabel. “Of course, we still have a lot of work ahead of us, because obviously it’s not over until we get a result that I think is more appropriate for what occurred in this case. But you know, you got to start somewhere, and it took a long time to get to this point. It’s a process. But it is a step forward.”
Meanwhile, the Associated Press reports the Berrien County Prosecutor’s office released a statement Wednesday, saying that the next judge in Anderson’s will consider the “public's concern for minors who are unable to make appropriate potentially life-changing decisions."