Deal Hits Snag in Abuse Case

By Keith Kinnaird
Bonner County Daily Bee

November 22, 2008

SANDPOINT — The father of a young girl fondled by a former pastor at a Priest Lake church is objecting to a controversial plea agreement which would reduce the charge and punishment against the defendant.

"It never should have gone that way," said the victim's father, who is not being identified in order to protect the girl's identity. "There never should have been a plea agreement."

He believes Stephen D. Bicknell should take full responsibility for his actions and the state should not be entering into agreements which diminish the severity of offenses, particularly when they involve innocent children.

The father's remarks followed an attempted sentencing hearing on Thursday. The hearing was ultimately rescheduled due to unresolved issues concerning the proposed plea agreement.

Bicknell pleaded guilty last month to a reduced charge of felony battery as part of the agreement, which proposes a suspended prison sentence and a term in jail lasting no more than 60 days.

Under the agreement, the defense could lobby for a withheld judgment, which would enable the charge to be removed from Bicknell's record following probation. He also would not have to register as a sex offender.

The state and the defense are asking the court to adhere to the terms of the plea bargain, something Senior District Judge James Michaud was apparently unwilling to do on Thursday.

Michaud met with Bonner County Prosecutor-elect Louis Marshall and defense attorney Clark Peterson behind closed doors prior to the hearing. In court, Michaud said he advised the attorneys what he was willing to go along with, but declined to disclose what those terms were.

The victim's father said he believes the duration of Bicknell's confinement is a sticking point with the court.

Both sides agreed to continue the hearing until Dec. 16.

"We don't want to withdraw our plea. He's always accepted responsibility and we don't want to go back on that, but there are some details that need to be worked out," Peterson said during the hearing.

Bicknell, 57, was originally charged with sexual abuse of a minor after allegations surfaced that he fondled the girl in 2005 and 2006, when she was between the ages of nine and 10.

At the time of the abuse, Bicknell was the pastor of Priest Lake Community Church. He has since relocated to Libby, Mont., and the victim's father said the scandal has driven a wedge in the congregation.

Michaud acknowledged the emotionally-charged nature of such cases and the family's unease with the plea agreement proposed in the case. However, he defended the use of plea agreements in criminal matters and noted that officials in the criminal justice system are tasked with making difficult decisions.

"It's a controversial area of the law. But, frankly, if we didn't have plea bargaining and every single case were to go to trial, there wouldn't be enough money to pay enough judges and lawyers to try every single case," he said.


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