The 2018 Draft is unusual. Not in terms of talent, mind you. No, the 2018 Draft is unusual because we have a genuinely unprecedented situation: a potential high-round draft pick with perhaps the most serious baggage a person can possibly have. From THE BOARD, courtesy of Eric Longenhagen and Kiley McDaniel:
Heimlich is a Level 1 sex offender in Oregon… Heimlich was projected to go in round two last year, when he was a junior. Shortly before the draft, The Oregonian reported court documents that showed Heimlich plead guilty to sexually assaulting his niece. Court records showed the victim reported multiple incidents of molestation between 2009 and 2011, when Heimlich was 14-15 years old and the victim was 4-6. He plead guilty to one count which included a handwritten admission and the other count was dismissed as part of a plea bargain.
After this information surface[d], Heimlich spent the rest of the spring of 2017 away from Oregon State and went undrafted. He returned for his senior season and has pitched well while, amid intermediate media attention, he and his family (except for the immediate family of the victim) denied he committed the crime and say Heimlich plead guilty so the legal proceedings would end more quickly. This situation is abnormal, there’s no precedent for it and it’s unclear why/how a team would go about clearing Heimlich for employment, though ownership would certainly have to be involved.
Let’s take a look at what this means.
Luke Heimlich is a left-handed pitcher at Oregon State University and one of the top college arms in the country. The crime in question occurred in Washington State, not Oregon. OSU — and the national media — became aware of it when he failed to comply with Oregon’s requirements that he check-in and annually report to the state’s sex offender registry. It’s worth noting that, according to at least one report, it was a mistake by law enforcement, rather than by Heimlich, which caused the failed check-in. In any event, Heimlich is listed on the sex offender registries of two states: Washington and Oregon.
Oregon classifies sex offenders based on what are called “notification levels,” based on a projected likelihood of recidivism. Heimlich, as a Level 1 sex offender, is considered the lowest likelihood to reoffend and therefore the lowest risk to the community. It’s also worth noting that Heimlich’s record has now been expunged; he completed his sentence and time as a registered sex offender and, per the agreement and because Heimlich committed the crime while a juvenile, it was removed from his record. That does not mean he was found, or is now, innocent; expungement is more properly considered sealing of the court file so it can’t be accessed later. Legally, Heimlich still committed the crime, and it’s still on his criminal record; it just now won’t be publicly available.
Because it is relevant, this is the accusation against Heimlich, via Sports Illustrated:
According to the document, which alleged that Heimlich committed two counts of “child molestation in the first degree,” the girl told investigators that Heimlich brought her to the floor in the middle of his bedroom, “pulled down her underwear and with his hand he touched her private part… She said that she told him to stop, but he wouldn’t.” The girl also said that “Uncle Luke”… “touched her on both the inside and outside of the spot she uses to go to the bathroom. She said that it hurt her… She said that the first time the respondent touched her she was four years old and that she was six years old the last time he did this.”
Heimlich did plead guilty to it. But he didn’t just plead guilty — he also wrote and signed a formal confession as part of the plea deal. Heimlich said he did so to avoid the trial, and added this:
I had several conversations with my mom, with my dad, and ultimately it came down to: We thought that this was going to be the best route for me and my family, knowing that it was basically a he-said/she-said. In the court of law we didn’t really think I stood a fair chance; that was the advice we had been given. So we thought that pleading guilty was going to give me the best chance at a normal life, and our family a best chance at reconnecting and being able to just kind of move past this whole event.
On the other hand, the victim’s mother was steadfast in Heimlich’s guilt, per the New York Times:
The girl’s mother, whose name is being withheld to protect the identity of the victim, said her daughter’s account is the truth. “There is no way he didn’t do it,” she said in an interview with The Times in which she described her daughter’s descriptions of abuse as “very specific.”
Now, I obviously wasn’t present, and so I can’t tell you what happened. However, as a matter of law, Heimlich is guilty. When you plead guilty to a crime, you are waiving the requirement that the government prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt. You also waive your right to appeal the conviction (with exceptions that probably don’t apply here). The plea he signed probably looked a lot like this one.
And Heimlich’s explanation is, while not necessarily incredible, certainly incomplete from a legal standpoint. If Heimlich didn’t want to plead guilty, he might have been able to plead “nolo contendere” or “no contest,” which is a special kind of plea that concedes the government has sufficient evidence to convict you while maintaining your innocence. If that wasn’t offered as part of a plea deal — and it’s certainly possible it wasn’t — Heimlich’s lawyer also could have tried what’s called an Alford plea, a close relative of no contest pleas wherein the defendant pleads guilty without admitting guilt, thus preserving the ability to assert innocence later. Again, that may not have been on the table for a variety of reasons. (In case you’re wondering what rules governing Washington state juvenile proceedings, you can find them here. And Washington’s Court Rule governing pleas, 4.2(d), also says this:
(d) Voluntariness. The court shall not accept a plea of guilty, without first determining that it is made voluntarily, competently and with an understanding of the nature of the charge and the consequences of the plea. The court shall not enter a judgment upon a plea of guilty unless it is satisfied that there is a factual basis for the plea.
So, in order to accept the plea, a judge had to find that there was a factual basis for it. In theory, at least, that is to ensure that innocent people don’t plead guilty to crimes. Now, to be clear: wrongful guilty pleas can and do happen, and more often than you might think, for a whole variety of reasons. So it is not out of the realm of possibility that Heimlich is, in fact, innocent of the charges to which he pleaded guilty.
That being said, Heimlich did plead guilty. As a matter of law, he’s guilty. As a matter of fact, there’s a really good chance he’s guilty, because if he pleaded guilty based on the evidence against him, that means he (or his lawyer) believed the state had overwhelming evidence that he committed the crime, or at least enough evidence to make a guilty verdict probable. So this is not, contrary to how some have portrayed it, a “he said, she said” debate any longer. The case is over, and Heimlich accepted his guilt. He cannot now relitigate that decision for the sake of his baseball career.
Sheryl Ring is a litigation attorney and General Counsel at Open Communities, a non-profit legal aid agency in the Chicago suburbs. You can reach her on twitter at @Ring_Sheryl. The opinions expressed here are solely the author's. This post is intended for informational purposes only and is not intended as legal advice.