Appeals court upholds Skinness case
ST. PAUL — Francis Skinness, the former Stewartville elementary school teacher sentenced a year ago to 12 years in prison for sexually assaulting a former student, has lost his appeal at the state level.
The ruling of the Minnesota Court of Appeals, which affirmed the actions taken by Olmsted County District Court, was released Monday. The appeal was one of several heard June 4, when a three-judge panel of the Minnesota Court of Appeals traveled to Rochester to hear oral arguments.
David Liebow argued that Skinness should have a new trial because the judge in the original trial made procedural errors.
Liebow said Olmsted County District Judge Robert Birnbaum erred by allowing Spriegl evidence — defined as evidence of other crimes, wrongs or acts.
Skinness was convicted in May 2014 of criminal sexual conduct for abuse that occurred at Bonner Elementary School in Stewartville during the 2005-2006 school year. Skinness took the girl across the hallway from his classroom to a storage room, where the abuse occurred. There, the complaint says, he forced her to perform oral sex and masturbation, in addition to digitally penetrating her.
The victim — who didn't report the abuse until 2013 — said Skinness would frequently have girls in his class sit on his lap on a small wooden stool — an accusation identical to one contained in a complaint filed in 2009.
To resolve the 2009 case, Skinness pleaded guilty to one count of second-degree criminal sexual conduct, but prison time in the case was stayed. He repeatedly violated the terms of probation in that case by refusing to complete sex offender treatment.
The victims from the 2009 case were allowed to testify during Skinness' jury trial in the second case. A jury deliberated less than four hours before returning guilty verdicts on all three of the sexual abuse charges he faced.
Liebow argued the two cases didn't meet the criteria for Spreigl, saying they "were not markedly similar acts. They were barely a similar act, except for the (school) setting, and that evidence was key to the State's case.
"Without that testimony (from the 2009 victims), there's virtually no case," he said.
The appeals court justices conceded that the incidents were not identical, the ruling says, "but all of the conduct involved third-grade students, occurred at the elementary school during the time frame of 2005 to 2009, and involved Skinness's acts of putting his hands down students' shirts and around their waist area and pressing his genitals against the students.
"We conclude that the Spreigl evidence and the charged offense are markedly similar," the justices wrote, and because of that, "the district court did not abuse its discretion by finding that the Spreigl evidence was relevant to the charged offense."