MADISON — A former Norfolkan who pleaded no contest to third-degree sexual assault of a child and felony child abuse was sentenced to six years in prison Friday morning in district court.
Tate T. Pirnie, 25, had originally been charged with first-degree sexual assault of a child under the age of 12, a crime that carried a possible sentence of 20 years to lifetime incarceration.
When he was first arraigned in November 2017, Pirnie was ordered to be held on 10% of a $1 million bond by Judge James Kube, based on the information in the probable cause affidavit.
According to that affidavit, filed in October 2017, a female child said that in September 2016 — when she was 9 years old — Pirnie had sexually assaulted her on at least two separate occasions.
The victim and her older sister had been staying with Pirnie and his then-significant other after they were left there by their homeless parents.
Following more than a year of incarceration while awaiting trial — due to numerous continuances — Pirnie’s bond was eventually lowered to 10% of $100,000 with the condition he reside with his family in Ainsworth.
The case was set for trial and rescheduled multiple times, but Pirnie in January accepted a plea deal and changed his plea to no contest of felony child abuse and third-degree sexual assault of a child with an Alford plea.
An Alford plea is a guilty plea that is entered without a factual admission of guilt and is done to accept the favorable aspects of a plea bargain. A no contest plea is treated in court the same as a guilty plea for purposes of sentencing.
IN COURT Friday, Judge Kube said the pre-sentence investigation (PSI) indicated that Pirnie denied committing any sexual assaults.
Kube asked Pirnie if the victim was lying, and Pirnie said yes.
“You understand that she takes medication for depression at this time, and she’s going to counseling, she has nightmares, has trouble sleeping,” Kube said.
Madison County Attorney Joe Smith said during the investigation into the assaults, Pirnie was read his Miranda rights and interviewed by a police officer.
Pirnie was told by the officer that the victim was found with Pirnie’s semen inside her, and Pirnie gave an explanation involving a teddy bear he owned that he said might have been the reason for that.
However, semen was never discovered on or in the victim. The story, Smith said, showed that Pirnie thought it was possible and was trying to make excuses.
“Though he did not fully confess, he basically did,” Smith said.
He went on to say that the victim and her sister had been bounced around in the foster care system and didn’t have anything going for them in life at that time.
“They had nobody to tell, no place to go. They did stay with adults once in a while who kept letting them down. From a predatory standpoint, the victim in this case was a very good victim — she had no support, she was young, scared, scared of the state, and that’s why we don’t have a jury (trial),” Smith said.
He recommended Pirnie receive two long sentences on the two charges “to protect others and, most importantly, to reflect on the severity of the offenses he committed,” Smith said.
PIRNIE’S ATTORNEY, Wanda Howey-Fox of Yankton, said her client took the plea deal because he didn’t want to take the risk of going to trial and being convicted on a harsher charge.
Howey-Fox said Pirnie and his significant other had taken the victim and her sister in because their mother and her boyfriend were drug users and Pirnie felt sorry for the girls.
The two children’s stories changed over time, and a medical examination of the victim showed that she was not penetrated, Howey-Fox said.
She said that the older sister didn’t like the rules in Pirnie’s home, and she wanted to leave.
“This (accusation) was a way to get out of the home, and then it just snowballed from there. I don’t think the victim liked to be put in this position,” Howey-Fox said.
She said there were inconsistencies in the victim’s story, including what kind of sexual assault happened and whether the sister had told the victim what happened.
Howey-Fox said that when Pirnie was being interviewed by law enforcement, he was stressed out and was trying to come up with a reason for why his DNA might have been found in the victim to answer the question.
“I don’t mean to be harsh, but he’s not the smartest client I’ve ever had. ... The only thing he could think of was this bear,” Howey-Fox said.
She asked the court to take into consideration that Pirnie scored a very low risk “for everything” in the pre-sentence investigation and that he had already spent 14 months in jail.
When given the opportunity to address the court, Pirnie said he had just been trying to do a good deed, “and no good deed goes unpunished.”
“That’s why I’m here now. I tried to help a family out, I tried to keep children out of foster car and apparently I bit off more than I could chew. So, I didn’t expect this to rise up, especially a year later. But it’s a life lesson. I’m a lot smarter than I was, a lot wiser than I was,” Pirnie said.
JUDGE KUBE pointed out that a no contest plea would be accepted as a guilty plea for purposes of sentencing. Kube said he did understand why Pirnie continued to deny the allegations, due to the Alford plea situation.
“When someone enters that type of a plea, what was not mentioned was even though there were discrepancies in the testimony of the victim and her sister, we’re talking about young girls here. We’re talking about children, not robots. Children sometimes act and respond in ways that adults would consider to be indicative to them not telling the truth,” Kube said.
He told Pirnie that it was hard to believe that this whole story started simply because the girls didn’t like Pirnie’s house or his rules, “and that somehow mushroomed into this complete fabrication that has somehow eluded our ability and our judicial system to figure out what the truth is to bring us here today.
“Because of that, and because of all the things that I’ve read and taken into consideration, I have to tell you that I believe the girls,” Kube said.
He then sentenced Pirnie to three years in the Nebraska Department of Corrections on the felony child abuse charge and three years on the third-degree sexual assault of a child charge. Pirnie was given credit for 445 days previously served.
Pirnie must serve at least three years, less 445 days, before his mandatory release. He also was ordered to one year of post-release supervision, and he also may be subject to an evaluation by a mental health professional prior to release to determine if he is a dangerous sex offender and subject to a civil commitment.