A case that was pending in Effingham County for 45 months has been resolved with an Alford plea and a handful of dismissals on the other charges.
The case had a precarious path to conclusion, which included a number of delays, an appeal to the Georgia Court of Appeals, and an ultimate resolution far from the initial charges.
According to court documents, James Joseph Sapp of Effingham County found himself in the cross hairs of an investigation during a separation with his wife at the time. He had his then-wife of six years served with divorce papers in January 2020. Three days later, Sapp’s stepdaughter disclosed to a school counselor that she had been sexually assaulted by her stepfather five years prior.
At the end of February, the Springfield Police Department sought warrants for Sapp for acts that allegedly occurred sometime between 2015 and 2019. He was arrested shortly thereafter and remanded to the Effingham County Jail.
A grand jury indicted Sapp in December 2020 on seven counts, including:
- Aggravated Sexual Battery
- Child Molestation (x2)
- Cruelty to Children 1st Degree (x2)
- Terroristic Threats (x2)
Sapp was held without bond for two years and nine months until a caveat in state law required a superior court judge to set a bond.
The case, initially handled by Brian Deal, once the Chief ADA for the Effingham office of the District Attorney’s Office, was passed off to the eldest ADA, Christy Barker. Barker spent decades in Chatham County and only recently moved to the Ogeechee Judicial Circuit.
Represented by Savannah defense attorney Bobby Phillips, the case finally made its way to Jury Selection on June 9, 2022, at which time a jury was selected by the state and the defense for an August jury trial. But disagreements over the judge’s ruling on pretrial motions changed the trajectory of the case.
Some Criminal History & a Ruling by the Georgia Court of Appeals
The district attorney’s office announced its intention to introduce prior acts and to seek recidivist punishment in the sentencing phase, which means that in the event of guilty convictions on some or all of the charges, Sapp’s prior acts would be introduced to ensure the maximum sentencing without the possibility of parole. In 1994, Sapp entered a guilty plea for Statutory Rape. At the time of the plea, Sapp was 19 and the female victim in the case was 14. Court records indicate there was an ongoing relationship between the parties. Sapp was sentenced to a probation-only sentence with 90-120 days in a boot camp.
Sapp has also had a handful of other charges over the years, most of which were dismissed or conditionally discharged after completion of pre-trial diversion programs. None have included any offense that is sexual in nature, however. Even still, the State announced over a year ago that it intended to suggest the 1994 case and the 2020 case were similar.
Judge Peed did not buy into the State’s argument and subsequently issued an Order denying any mention by the State of the Statutory Rape plea from 27 years ago.
“Based on the nature of the plea, it appears that this sexual contact between the Defendant and the victim did not involve force*. The Court further notes that this conviction is from 27 years ago and 21 years before the earliest crime alleged in the indictment. As such, the Court finds that the 1994 conviction is dissimilar to the allegations in the current case.”
*Author’s note [to the extent that it is comparable to what is alleged in the current indictment. No one under the age of 16 can consent under Georgia law]
Peed also wrote that the State’s need for the evidence at trial was low since the accuser from the 2020 case was expected to testify at trial. He said the standard of probative value substantially outweighing the danger of unfair prejudice had not been met.
ADA Christy Barker and District Attorney Daphne Totten subsequently appealed Peed’s ruling to the Georgia Court of Appeals while Phillips, on behalf of his client, moved for the appeal to be dismissed. SImultaneously, Phillips again sought bond for Sapp. Under OCGA 5-7-5, Sapp was entitled to bond because “In the event that the state files an appeal as authorized by this chapter, the accused shall be released on reasonable bail pending the disposition of the appeal, except in those cases punishable by death.”
The Court of Appeals ultimately dismissed the appeal by prosecutors almost nine months after it was filed. You can read about that here.
After the denial of the appeal, the case was scheduled for jury trial the week of November 28, 2023 – forty-five months after Sapp was first arrested. The case was assigned to a third prosecutor, former public defender Stuart Patray.
An Alford plea is a guilty plea in which a defendant maintains their innocence but admits that the prosecution’s evidence would likely result in a guilty verdict if brought to trial. Not all states allow Alford pleas, but Georgia does. In many cases, an Alford plea is entered in hopes of a lesser sentence. Defendants sometimes believe that they will receive a lighter sentence than if they are found guilty at trial and then sentenced, a concept better known as a ‘trial tax.’ (A penalty for asserting one’s right to a trial by a jury of their peers.)
On November 14, Sapp entered an Alford plea on the Cruelty to Children counts. The state then dismissed the other charges, including the Aggravated Sexual Battery, Child Molestation, and Terroristic Threats & Acts counts.
Sapp was sentenced to 20 years with 2 years and nine months ‘to serve’ with credit for time served, meaning he would not serve another day. The remainder of his sentence was probated. He’s banned from Bulloch County forever and subject to the sex offender guidelines.