ALPENA — Nicholas Skaluba deserves a new trial, according to an attorney arguing before the Michigan Court of Appeals last month.
In 2019, a jury found Skaluba guilty of drugging and sexually assaulting two girls in Alpena in 2016. A judge sentenced him to at least 16 years in prison.
Lindsay Ponce, assistant public defender for the State Appellate Defender Office, told the appeals court that, during Skaluba’s trial, statements by then-Alpena County Prosecutor Ed Black biased the jury against Skaluba, making a fair decision impossible.
According to Ponce, Black encouraged the jury, as they weighed their decision about Skaluba, to think about all sexual assault survivors who struggle to be believed.
The arrest of Skaluba and Tommy Hein, sentenced to 90 days in jail in a case related to Skaluba’s, led to demonstrations in downtown Alpena when Hein received a sentence many people thought was too light.
Given those protests and a national concern over the treatment of sexual assault survivors during the #MeToo movement, Black’s reference to other survivors created irreparable prejudice and pressure on the jury, Ponce said.
“There are some comments that are so inflammatory that the bell simply can’t be unrung,” the attorney told the appeals judges.
Black also referred to the undergarments of the survivors as Skaluba’s trophies, although testimony indicated Skaluba may have never had those items in his possession, according to Ponce.
Additionally, a mistake or intentional oversight by Skaluba’s attorneys limited the testimony of one expert witness, creating more unfair prejudice, Ponce argued.
Black’s reference to other survivors wasn’t calling jurors to their civic duty to convict but, rather, explaining why survivors of sexual assault fear coming forward with their stories, an attorney for the state responded.
Black’s comments constituted “a ‘make this right’ kind of thing,” but such comments did not improperly bias the jury, nor did the other issues Ponce raised, the attorney said.
The appeals court will decide whether to reverse Skaluba’s conviction and order a new trial. It has not publicized a timeline for that decision.
Julie Riddle can be reached at 989-358-5693, email@example.com or on Twitter @jriddleX.