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What started out as a motions hearing quickly turned into a discussion of split infinitives and diagramming sentences Friday in Bedford County Circuit Court. The hearing would eventually end with 25-year-old John Edward Pressley of Martinsville entering four no contest pleas to computer solicitation of a child less than 15 years old.
Assistant Public Defender John Bradley, representing Pressley, raised several questions, prior to his client’s pleas, that involved grammar and sentence construction. The first issue was easily solved: what he called a grammatical error in the indictments against his client. Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Wes Nance presented Judge James Updike with amended indictments to fix that question. Nance argued that a grammatical error was not enough to have an indictment dismissed and Updike agreed.
Bradley, however, then argued that the actual construction of the state statute under which his client was charged was worded incorrectly, and thereby negated his client having to face enhanced sentencing guidelines under the statute. Bradley, who earned an undergraduate degree in English from California State University in San Bernardino, stated that the wording of the statute meant his client shouldn’t have to face the mandatory enhanced sentencing guidelines.
Discussion of the wording eventually led to the issue of diagramming sentences and whether students in public schools today do that any more. “I used to like to diagram sentences,” Judge Updike stated of his early years in public schools.
The main legal issue focused on whether Pressley had actually talked to a child while making the computer solicitations. Pressley was charged with making four solicitations to a girl he believed to be 13 years old, when actually it was an undercover officer with the Bedford County Sheriff’s Office. Bradley argued the wording of the statute, which calls for enhanced mandatory sentencing if the offender is at least seven years older than the victim, didn’t apply to his client because of the wording of the statute. He said that the wording, as it was written in the statute, stated that the victim had to actually be a child as opposed to someone posing as a child.
While Updike agreed there was a problem with wording in the statute by the General Assembly, he didn’t have the authority to rewrite the statute or the enhanced sentencing guidelines included in it. As he read through the statute, Updike commented that “years ago we were told you’re not supposed to split any infinitives.”
Bradley argued that the enhancement portion of the statute should be read as stated and should be interpreted in favor of the client. That sentencing provision calls for a mandatory sentence of not less than five years and more than 30 years for those convicted of computer solicitation of a minor at least seven years younger than the defendant. Bradley cited cases dating back to 1820 in making his argument for a strict reading of the statutory construction.
Nance, however, argued that the enhanced penalty provision was simply an extension of the rest of the statute which does not make a distinction between whether the victim was actually a child or not. The question, he argued, was whether the person charged believed the victim he was soliciting was actually a child under the age of 15. He said the meaning of the statute had to be taken in its entirety. He argued that what was important was what the defendant believed to be true.
Pressley eventually entered conditional no contest pleas to the four felony charges. The conditional pleas will allow him the right to later appeal the enhancemed penalties of the statute.
The charges stemmed from conversations Pressley had on the computer between May 6, 2009, and June 3, 2009, according to Nance. Nance said Pressley made the solicitations for sex for a victim he believed to be 13 years old. Pressley, then 23, was actually chatting with an investigator with the Bedford County Sheriff’s Office.
During the conversations Pressley, Nance said, sent a picture of a naked male to the undercover officer, and asked several times if she “was ready to have a baby with him.”
A search warrant was executed at Pressley’s home and he was home at the time and admitted to the chats, Nance said. Nance said Pressley asked the officers to take an apology from him to the parents of the child the officer was portraying to be, not knowing that it was actually an officer.
Bradley noted that though a meeting had been arranged during the chats between his client and the officer portraying the girl, Pressley did not show up. If Pressley is sentenced under the mandatory enhanced guidelines, he would face a minimum of 20 years in prison for the convictions.