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Anatomy of an abuse case: Outcomes don't always seem to fit

Kelly Janning, of Austin, was beaten by her ex-boyfriend in October 2013. Julius Britten was initially charged with eight felonies, including kidnapping, assault, and burglary but was recently released from jail.

AUSTIN — When Kelly Janning talks about Julius Britten, her fear seems genuine. She becomes emotional. Her hands shake. She worries about her children.

On a recent cold, windy Friday, her father was installing motion-activated lights outside Janning's rural Austin home; she was on the phone with a friend who was pricing security cameras.

Her words, though, seem to belie her actions.

"I hope he sees this," she said about reports of the assault case involving Britten, "and I hope he sees that I'm strong, and I'm not afraid. I'm not going anywhere; he's not pushing me out of my home."

Janning pauses, as if considering what she just said.


"I'm not physically afraid," she clarified. "I'm prepared. And I'm stronger this time."

Britten's attorney, Tom Lenway, recommended his client not comment for this story.

"Until he's actually sentenced, the case remains open," Lenway said.

The relationship

Janning, 38, and Britten, 39, were introduced by his cousin. She admired the successful electrician, who owned his own home. They were about six months into their relationship when he first hit her, Janning said. She didn't report the first incident until filling out a request for a restraining order after a second incident of alleged abuse.

In that document, Janning claims that on Oct. 1, 2013, Britten locked her in a room, slapped her repeatedly, threatened her with a box cutter and swung a baseball bat near her head.

The incident that prompted the restraining order request allegedly occurred Oct. 19, 2013, the day the couple broke up. Janning wrote that Britten pushed her to the floor and took her car keys. Though the police were never called, the court granted the restraining order.

In it, Britten is prohibited from coming within 1,000 feet of Janning and her two younger children. It was served to Britten Oct. 24.


The assault

Their case escalated two days later, when Britten showed up at Janning's home.

"I was letting the dog in," she said, "and he was waiting just beside the door."

According to the criminal complaint filed with the court, Britten was holding an aluminum baseball bat. He pushed his way inside the home and allegedly told her, "You should never have called the police."

Janning said Britten immediately removed the battery from her phone and broke the phone in half, then hit her in the head with the bat. She blocked more blows, she said, resulting in an injury to her hand.

The assault went on for hours, the criminal complaint says — until Britten received a text from a friend and needed a ride home.

"I thought that text saved my life," Janning says now. Britten demanded a diamond ring Janning owned, which she gave him, then drove him home "to get rid of him."

She was going to contact a former boyfriend "to handle it," Janning said. "I didn't think jail was (punishment) enough."


When her mother saw her the next morning, however, she issued an ultimatum to Janning:

"She told me, 'you'd better call the police right now or I'm going to take your kids away from you.'"

Janning called law enforcement, who went to Britten's home. There, they found the ring and a baseball bat. He was arrested.

Her past

Janning makes no attempt to hide her own troubled past.

She was addicted to crack, but had been clean for four years when she met Britten. They used meth together, Janning said, and her use continued until May of this year, when she was arrested on a pair of felony drug charges. She says she's clean now, with the help of recovery groups and her church.

On Monday, she was sentenced in the May case to 33 months in prison, stayed for 20 years, for third-degree drug possession, a felony. She was ordered to 40 hours of Sentence to Service work, and 300 hours of community work service.

She's also been convicted multiple times of felony check forgery and fraud, as well as other drug charges.


Janning is currently battling her ex-husband for custody of her two youngest children, ages 13 and 14; her 17-year-old son lives down the road with Janning's parents.


Jeremy Clinefelter, assistant attorney with the Mower County Attorney's Office, is the prosecutor in the state's case against Britten, who was charged with eight felonies, including kidnapping, first-degree burglary, first-degree aggravated robbery, second-degree assault with a dangerous weapon and domestic assault.

While the charges — and the case itself — seem dramatic, they have to be realistically assessed, he said.

"Obviously, the victim's credibility is key, based on her past and current criminal history," Clinefelter said. "You have to consider how the jury's going to perceive the person. I definitely believe her; I believe that something happened, that he abused her. As to how it exactly happened, I'm not sure I really know."

But given the story, why wouldn't those charges send Britten to prison?

There are two aspects to every case, Clinefelter said.

Simply because something is alleged doesn't mean it actually happened that way, he explained. The state has the burden of proof, and it can't rely on just one side.


"Not only was Kelly deceitful in the past, but she was deceitful to a criminal level," Clinefelter said. "Again, there's no question that Kelly was assaulted in some sort of incident, because we have the demonstrative injury. But the only evidence it happened the way she claimed is her story."

Though Janning had filed for that order for protection a week before the assault, the incident she alleges in it "was remarkably similar to what transpired the night of the assault."

That's a problem, he said.

"I go in front of juries all the time and say, 'Look, If the stories are too similar, that's a red flag for you;' it could be an indicator that things aren't exactly what they seem."

In addition, the defense produced evidence that Janning's phone — which she claimed Britten broke immediately upon entering her home — was operational and being used, with outgoing and ingoing calls, during the time of the assault.

"I've had cases where I've sat with a victim and ultimately dismissed" the case, Clinefelter said, "because I don't believe the victim."

The law

The second component of the case, he said, is straightforward: Despite the fact that Britten was charged with eight felonies, the law dictates that he could only be sentenced on the most serious count.


It's sometimes referred to as "single behavior incident," and it's designed to prevent the court from "piling on" a defendant. The prosecutor thinks the law is just.

"Essentially, the idea is that you're exaggerating the criminal conduct," Clinefelter said. In Britten's case, it was eight different crimes, but one act.

"Generally, the rule is you take the top count," he said. "You can convict on all of them, but you can't sentence on all of them, so you take the best one."

In addition, Britten simply didn't meet the state's sentencing guidelines that would indicate a prison term.

"He had zero criminal history," Clinefelter said, meaning that although Britten has had run-ins with the law, he's never been convicted of a felony.

That doesn't mean, however, that Britten doesn't understand how the law works.

While in jail awaiting his case, Britten filed for an order for protection against Janning, claiming she'd pointed a gun at him several times during their short relationship, threatened to kill him and bury his body, and struck him with her car.

He attempted to withdraw the request before the judge made a ruling; the order for protection was denied.

The deal

But the fact remained that Britten wasn't going to face prison time, so Clinefelter did what he considered the best option. He offered Britten a plea deal: Plead guilty to first-degree burglary in Janning's case, as well as felony domestic assault in a second case involving a different woman, and the remaining charges will be dismissed.

Clinefelter is sure to get the victim's blessing for any deal he makes, asking them what they find acceptable for a guaranteed conviction.

The second victim alleged Britten had hit her with an aluminum baseball bat in October 2012, but said she was too afraid to report him earlier.

Britten, who was in jail from Oct. 27, 2013, until his plea hearing Nov. 3 of this year, was released from custody after the plea. At his sentencing, set for Feb. 5, he's expected to be sentenced to a 33-month prison term, stayed for 20 years.

That means he's served his time; however, if he breaks the law in any way in the next 20 years, the prison term will be executed.

"People forget, when we're making these deals, we'd rather get (a conviction) than nothing," Clinefelter said.

The outcome after Britten's guilty pleas was optimal, the prosecutor said.

"He spent a significant amount of time in jail," Clinefelter said, "more than virtually any other defendant I've seen. That factors into (his punishment). It's not like he's not had a consequence. He's been punished, and still has a pretty significant punishment hanging over his head if he makes a misstep."

In addition, and most importantly, the state is laying the groundwork to handle any future offenses Britten may commit.

"We've achieved a result," Clinefelter said. "We have guaranteed convictions; he has three felonies; we're building a criminal history. There's no incentive whatsoever for him to have any contact" with Janning or the other victim.

"The goal is to keep him on track," he said. "You set it up on the hope that they won't re-offend, but if they do, you're ready."

The defense

Tom Lenway, who has a law practice in Austin and also works part-time for the public defender's office, is Britten's attorney.

"It appears he got off scot-free," Lenway said of his client, "but people don't know the whole story. The woman has a torrid history; the facts are kind of fishy."

Britten, though, "has had one domestic violence incident in 40 years of his life; granted, domestic violence is an issue, but it's not uncommon for upstanding people to have domestic violence issues in the family. Without knowing the facts of the situation, it's hard to label someone a domestic abuser based on one incident."

Lenway said he's known Janning for years, and represented her ex-husband in an earlier custody matter.

"I totally disbelieve everything she says," he said. "I deal with domestic violence cases all the time, and in the majority of those cases, they're guilty, but I think this is one where I was more than willing and prepared to go to trial with it because I totally believed his story."

Britten, Lenway said, didn't want to take a chance with a jury, risking a much longer prison sentence.

"That was a risk. As soon as he entered the plea, he was out of jail."

The plea itself was a problem with Janning, she said.

Britten entered an Alford plea of guilty, which means that although he maintained his innocence, he acknowledged the evidence may have been sufficient for a jury to convict him.

"That's how I know he hasn't changed," Janning said. "He still won't admit it."

But Lenway said he doesn't believe there was an assault at all.

Janning had an obvious bruise and swelling on her cheekbone; and bruising on her head.

Domestic abuse cases, typically, "are about getting (offenders) the resources they need so they can have healthy relationships instead of abusive ones," Lenway said.

Britten, he added, will get those resources "whether he needs it or not, as part of his sentencing."

The future

Janning remains on the path to recovery, she said, and is working toward regaining custody of her children.

She thinks Clinefelter did the right thing, and "completely understands" what he did.

Still, Janning thinks "for the rest of my life, I'm going to have to look over my shoulder.

She cites the bogus order for protection attempt as an example.

Janning recently lost her job after her employers grew tired of her "drama," she said.

"Right now I'm going through some tough times, and it's worse with this man getting out of jail."

Thomas Lenway.jpg
Thomas Lenway

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