ROCHESTER — Following several social media posts and emails expressing concern over the sentences for people convicted of sex crimes in the Rochester area, the Post Bulletin sat down with Olmsted County Attorney Mark Ostrem to talk about how his office handles these cases, which are usually called criminal sexual conduct crimes under Minnesota statute.
The conversation covered his office’s policy regarding plea deals, and he talked at length about a high-profile case involving a 180 day jail sentence for 20-year-old Mohamed Bakari Shei, who was convicted earlier this year of raping two juvenile girls in Olmsted County when he was, himself, a juvenile .
“The primary focus on criminal sexual conduct cases is who the victim is and what the victim’s interests are,” Ostrem said. Whether or not the victim is juvenile, the relationship to the offender and what the victim wishes to happen in the case are all factors in his office’s stance on whether to charge a case and to take it to trial. His office also takes into account the nature of the offense and public safety concerns.
A charging and plea negotiation policy book that covers different case types, including criminal sexual conduct, is a guiding rod for the office. While the book is confidential and not available for the public to look at, it does give his office guidelines for how to proceed in a general sense, though, and Ostrem was quick to point this out, every case is unique and has different nuances to it.
His office also requires all sex crimes reported to local law enforcement be sent to his office for review for any charging decisions.
When it comes to plea deals, his office previews any negotiated settlements with the victim before his office agrees to anything. Whether or not a plea deal is negotiated relies on a variety of factors including whether or not the victim is willing to testify at trial.
“We always talk to the victim first and do our best to be in unison,” Ostrem said.
Some of the reasoning behind plea deals may have to do with keeping the victim from being further traumatized through a protracted court case and having to eventual testify against their abuser.
“Court is scary and when you’ve been violated like that, you need to find a way to heal,” Ostrem said. “Court doesn’t help that process.”
Generally, first time offenders for anyone convicted of a crime will be given a probationary sentence. For those convicted of sex crimes, keeping them locally allows for a greater chance for them to enter a sex offender program and the county is able to keep better tabs on them.
“Virtually every plea negotiation we make has an eye toward, who is this person and what are they going to be when we’re done,” Ostrem said. Rehabilitation for most first-time offenders is preferable to a lengthy prison sentence.
For sex offenders sent to prison, the Minnesota Department of Health operates sex offender treatment programs in two cities: Moose Lake and St. Peter . If the facilities in those cities don’t have enough room for inmates, they don’t get the treatment.
In Olmsted County, that’s almost never the case, Ostrem said.
“In a first time nonviolent sex offense, we are far better off to have somebody kept here in the community, keep them safe. We can keep them on supervision for a whole lot longer and have better assurance that our communities are safer than if we send them to prison,” Ostrem said. “Repeat offenders I got no time for, they belong in prison.”
Ostrem highlighted that every sex offense is violent but there is a distinction between different sex offenses.
Plea deals will also often allow for offenders to plea to a lower charge, which then opens up the door for them to serve time locally where the services they need are more readily available, according to Ostrem.
Shei was initially charged as a juvenile in 2019 for raping a 9-year-old and 5-year-old when he was around 16-years-old.
Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, causing delays across the Minnesota court system. Those delays pushed Shei’s case so far back, the juvenile court system was going to lose jurisdiction over him, as he was going to be an adult soon.
Those charges were dismissed against Shei in juvenile court but were soon refiled in adult court. Shei was then given a plea deal that included his stay of adjudication and no prison time in exchange for him not challenging certification in adult court, which allowed for his continued prosecution, Olmsted County Senior Attorney Thomas Gort said in court during Shei’s sentencing hearing earlier this year.
Shei was sentenced to 180 days in jail and up to 30 years of probation after offering an Alford plea late last year, meaning that while he does not admit guilt, he admits that a jury would convict him based on the evidence.
Shei was facing three different felony first-degree criminal conduct charges in two separate cases. His plea deal dismissed two out of the three charges. If Shei completes his probation, all charges against him will be dismissed and will not be on his criminal record.
The judge in that case, Jacob Allen, decided that Shei’s offenses warranted some type of punitive action in a ruling made against the arguments of Shei’s attorney, James McGeeney.
McGeeney said the court lacked the authority to impose any jail time, as that was not “the spirit” of the plea agreement and any jail sentence would be in violation of the agreement. The County Attorney’s Office did not argue against jail time during the sentencing hearing.
“I hope you heard what was said in this court today,” Allen told Shei during sentencing. “The conduct they described and the way it affected them should be something that haunts you.”
The County Attorney’s Office has received multiple phone calls about the case, and Ostrem wishes the public would reach out to him more often and ask him about cases, as opposed to commenting on social media and making veiled — and sometimes not-so-veiled — threats against judges, prosecutors and the convicted.
“Comments like that come from a place of ignorance. People don’t really understand our system,” Ostrem said, adding that those comments come from people who haven’t sat through every public hearing, but rather from people who have only read a short news story or a headline before getting upset with his office, which may be able to share more information if the public would simply reach out.
“To make unfortunate comments that will incite some sort of other public safety issues is, again, just frankly, it’s ignorant.” Ostrem said.
His office will share what they can with the public, but some cases, especially those involving sex crimes and juveniles, may have information that can’t be released to the public.
“So in part, we just kind of hope that people have some level of trust that we’re not out there just giving the farm away,” he said.
The County Attorney’s Office contemplated certifying Shei as an adult early on in the case while he was still a juvenile, but ultimately decided against it.
“There’s a lot of legislation out there right now about the juvenile brain and development and punishing juveniles as adults when their brain hasn’t developed as an adult,” Ostrem said.
Most juvenile cases strictly focus on the rehabilitation of the offender, the idea being that they are children and should be given a chance to become functioning members of society. With adult courts, the focus is more on sanctioning and less on rehabilitation.
“So we get into this twisted environment with the Shei case where we should be focusing on rehabilitation but he’s been certified as an adult (after he turned 18), so we need to focus on sanctions and how do you marry that together with a really old case where our victim was not enthusiastic to continue to participate,” Ostrem said.
There was a significant amount of discussion with the County Attorney’s Office about Shei’s stay of adjudication, as well, something he said his office agrees to sparingly. If Shei had been solely prosecuted in juvenile court, the office policy book calls for a stay of adjudication.
“Was it fair to him that the pandemic hit and took away an opportunity that you otherwise wouldn’t have had?” Ostrem said. “Was it fair to the victim that this pandemic shut down the system and she didn’t get the process she deserved?”
Shei’s guilty plea allowed for a case from 2019 to come to a close, as opposed to dragging the case further along and going to trial, according to Ostrem.
“It’s not that we’re afraid of a trial, but if he’s willing to plead guilty straight up, that was kind of amazing,” Ostrem said, adding that they could have moved forward with the trial but his office probably would have gotten the same amount of criticism had they done so.
Shei is starting his sex offender treatment while he’s in jail, Ostrem said
“We need to give the system a chance to prove that he can be safe,” Ostrem said.