Tom Olsen, Forum News Service, Published November 12 2013
Cook County attorney's sex case moved to DuluthGRAND MARAIS, Minn. — It appears that the fate of Cook County Attorney Tim Scannell again will be in the hands of a St. Louis County jury.
Three weeks after a Duluth grand jury indicted Scannell on two counts of fourth-degree criminal sexual conduct, attorneys agreed to move future hearings and a potential trial from Grand Marais to Duluth. The change of venue prevents Scannell from having to stand trial in the courthouse where he has served as top prosecutor for nearly seven years and gained notoriety after being shot by a man convicted of sexual conduct charges in 2011.
“There are only about 4,000 eligible jury members in Cook County and, obviously, opinions are strongly held in this community,” special prosecutor Thomas Heffelfinger said of the joint change of venue motion. “Duluth just seems like the place to have it.”
Scannell should next appear for an omnibus hearing in January at the St. Louis County Courthouse. His defense attorney, Joe Tamburino, said at a hearing Tuesday that it’s too early to determine whether he will request a contested hearing.
Scannell, dressed in a button-up shirt and khaki slacks, made his first public appearance since being formally charged with the crimes Oct. 31. Afterward, Scannell was taken to the sheriff’s headquarters for booking.
About 20 people filed through metal detectors at the courthouse entrance and sat in the gallery for the hearing, which lasted about 10 minutes. Among the spectators were several Cook County residents who have called for Scannell’s resignation, as well as several Scannell family members.
“There is tremendous support for Tim in the community,” Bonnie Swanson, Scannell’s mother-in-law, said outside the courtroom. “He’s a great man and a great father. All of this is unfair.”
Tamburino, who was retained as Scannell’s attorney last week, said it’s too early to determine the course of the case or his defense strategy, but suggested that his client won’t back down.
“He will forcefully defend himself,” Tamburino said. “He is not guilty of these charges.”
Tamburino declined to address the specifics of Scannell’s status as county attorney and his medical leave.
“He’s taking matters very seriously,” he said. “I can’t comment in that area.”
Scannell has been on medical leave for unspecified reasons since mid-October. Despite weekly protests outside the courthouse calling for his resignation, Scannell has refused to step down.
At Tuesday’s hearing, Tamburino waived the right for Scannell’s omnibus hearing to be held within 28 days. A transcript of the grand jury proceeding is expected to be completed and delivered to attorneys in the coming weeks, after which probable-cause issues could be raised.
Tamburino said he feels Duluth is an appropriate place for the trial, even though there has been media coverage in the area.
“We’re totally comfortable with having it in Duluth,” he said. “When you consider the size of the jury pool, you’re far less likely to have someone biased on the jury panel.”
The Cook County attorney since 2007, Scannell was thrust into the public eye when he was shot and seriously wounded by a man he had just prosecuted. On Dec. 15, 2011, Daniel Schlienz went to Scannell’s office in the Cook County Courthouse with a loaded handgun, minutes after he was convicted of criminal sexual conduct, and shot the county attorney and another man.
Less than a year later, a restraining order was filed against Scannell by the family of a 17-year-old girl, with whom he allegedly had an inappropriate relationship. A subsequent investigation of the relationship led by the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension and Heffelfinger, a former U.S. attorney now working as private attorney in Minneapolis, resulted in the case being brought to a grand jury last month.
The indictment alleges that Scannell engaged in sexual contact with the girl on two dates in August 2012. While the age of consent in Minnesota is 16, Heffelfinger said the case is being prosecuted because Scannell was more than four years older than the girl and in a position of authority.
Sentencing guidelines for fourth-degree criminal sexual conduct call for a stayed sentence of 18 to 24 months for an offender without a criminal history.