Cortlandville man's guilty verdict in sex abuse case thrown out

The Cortland County Courthouse

A State Appellate Court reversed the conviction of a Cortlandville man in a July 3 decision that concluded prejudicial testimony was used in his trial for criminal sex acts against a young boy.

Jonathan Saxe, 26, was convicted February 16, 2017, of felony first-degree criminal sex act and misdemeanor endangering the welfare of a child after a Cortland County jury found him guilty of forcing a boy relative, who was six or seven at the time, to perform oral sex in 2011, according to the court documents. But testimony from two female relatives that states Saxe committed rapes and sexual attacks against them around 2008 — sexual attacks he was not charged with — was too prejudicial to the jury and should not have been heard at Saxe’s trial, according to the decision by the Third Department Appellate Division of the State Supreme Court.

The Appellate Court determined the sexual attacks the females testified about were not similar enough to the attack the boy described in his testimony and did not show Saxe’s intent or motive in committing the crimes, or that the crimes were part of a scheme or plan, according to the decision.

According to the Appellate Court decision, “The female relatives specifically testified to repeated instances of oral sex, vaginal sex and digital penetration by defendant (Saxe), and one of the female relatives stated that defendant forced her and the other female relative to perform sexual acts upon each other as he watched.”

The Court also determined trial Judge Julie Campbell should not have allowed the testimony of three other witnesses: the boy’s mother and a detective who described admissions Saxe made to them, as well as the testimony of an additional witness described only as “another child victim.”

The totality of the testimony was too prejudicial for the jury to hear, the Appellate Court concluded. “Such testimony gave rise to a significant risk that the jury convicted defendant (Saxe) based, in whole or in part, upon the conclusion that he was a serial sex offender who had not been punished for his prior uncharged crimes (see People v Buskey, 45 AD3d at 1174),” the decision states. “Under these circumstances, the judgment of conviction must be reversed.”

With the conviction reversed, the case against Saxe will return to Cortland County Court and criminal proceedings against him will resume as if the 2017 trial did not occur, District Attorney Patrick Perfetti explained in a phone interview Wednesday.

“So the case comes down to County Court,” Perfetti said. “The defendant goes back in the position they were in pre-trial.”

The case has not yet been rescheduled in County Court, Perfetti noted, adding Saxe will stay in prison at least until the case is placed before Campbell again. 

Saxe was sentenced to five years in prison with five years of post-release supervision in 2017. He is currently serving at the Washington Correctional Facility, a state prison in Comstock, Washington County, and was not scheduled for release until May 17, 2021, at the earliest, according to the State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision.

Perfetti emphasized Wednesday the Appellate Court reversed Saxe’s conviction not because the facts didn’t support a conviction, but because some testimony should have been excluded at trial as a matter of law.

“They’re not saying he’s not guilty,” Perfetti said. “They’re saying there was an evidentiary error.”

Appellate Courts do not retry cases, they examine a trial for error, he noted.

“This is like a review of the umpire’s call,” Perfetti said, comparing a trial judge to a baseball umpire and the Appellate Court to an umpire crew chief reviewing video of a challenged play.

With Saxe’s conviction overturned, the County has different options it can explore to resolve the case, Perfetti said, adding he was not sure which avenue would be pursued yet.

“It could be a whole new trial. I’m not saying it’s going to be,” he said, adding a plea deal with a time-served sentence might also be negotiated. “All those are speculative right now.”