A Polk County judge tossed out a plea deal Wednesday for an 18-year-old Valley High School graduate charged with felony sex abuse and ordered him to stand trial.
Judge Robert Blink said the deal negotiated by Nicholas Fifield’s former attorney and prosecutors in the high-profile case did not pass “constitutional muster” because it wasn’t clear that Fifield was fully advised of his legal options.
“On its face, the record in this case does not comport with what the law requires,” Blink said in awarding a motion to arrest judgment in the case.
Fifield, a state tournament tennis player, was 17 when he was charged in January 2015 with third-degree felony sex abuse of a person “suffering from a mental defect or incapacity, which precludes giving consent.”
The teen faced, among other punishment, being placed on Iowa’s sex offender registry if he was convicted in the December 2015 alleged assault of an 18-year-old group home resident that he met on an online dating site.
Initially, Fifield’s former attorney, Sean Spellman, encourage Fifield and his parents to take a plea agreement that allowed him to maintain his innocence but acknowledged that prosecutors had enough evidence to convict him of a non-sex offense. The Alford plea Fifield signed in August meant the teen could be eligible for probation.
But Spellman did not discuss in court that the teen had mental disabilities as well as his accuser, who has autism, post-traumatic stress, major depression and other disorders. The fact that Fifield was also on the autism spectrum and had attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, became part of his defense when the family hired a new attorney before sentencing.
Locally, the Fifield case was featured in Watchdog because other Valley parents questioned the one-meet suspension Fifield received as school punishment while his father, Jay Fifield, was tennis coach.
News of the tennis star’s likely probation in August went viral across the country because it came on the heels of Stanford University swimmer Brock Turner receiving a six-month sentence for sexual assault that outraged many critics.
After widespread criticism of Nicholas Fifield’s plea agreement, Polk County Attorney John Sarcone said details of the case were more complicated than they appeared to outsiders.
What is known, according to a criminal complaint and police reports, is Fifield asked the teen’s parents and group home staff in Des Moines if he could take the 18-year-old to the movies. Instead, he took her to his Windsor Heights home, the two kissed. Eventually, sex acts occurred.
A criminal complaint contended that the girl said “no” several times. A Des Moines police report said that Fifield “told her to not tell anyone.”
Four days after the incident, however, a staff member at the group home took the girl to be examined at Mercy Medical Center emergency room.
A group-home worker said the young woman told a nurse that she took off her own clothes and willingly let Nicholas kiss and touch her. The staff member said she believed the girl did not know right from wrong.
Interviewed at the group home, the girl also told an investigating officer that “Nick didn’t make her do anything she didn’t want to do.”
At Wednesday morning’s court hearing, Brown called Jay Fifield, the former Valley tennis coach and a stockbroker for 30 years, to testify about what he was told about his son’s plea in August.
Jay Fifield said Spellman never discussed with the family the possible defense that the young woman involved in the incident was capable of consenting and had consented. And he said Spellman never discussed that his son’s “mental limitations” may have been relevant to the charge to which he planned to plead guilty.
“Was your son made aware he would have to confess to sexual misconduct as part of sex offender treatment?” Brown asked.
“No,” Fifield testified.
Before making his decision, Judge Blink raised several issues with the plea agreement — including that it didn’t acknowledge that Nicholas Fifield knew he had a right to a trial or that he was waiving his right to a jury trial.
Blink said he wasn’t condemning either of the attorneys involved. But “the record does not meet constitutional muster.”
Spellman said he respected the court’s ruling.
“The Iowa Rules of Professional Conduct prevent my further comment on this matter,” he said.
Lee Rood’s Reader’s Watchdog column helps Iowans get answers and accountability from public officials, the justice system, businesses and nonprofits. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org, 515-284-8549 on Twitter @leerood or at Facebook.com/readerswatchdog.