Assault plea entered in 2008 rape case

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WALLA WALLA -- A 22-year-old man accused of raping a woman last year pleaded guilty Monday in Superior Court to a lesser offense.

Nathan L. Pettett entered the guilty plea to the charge of second-degree assault.

He faces a standard-range jail term of three to nine months when he's sentenced later. The prosecution is recommending Pettett be ordered to serve the top end of the standard range in partial confinement for work release and undergo alcohol treatment.

Pettett had been charged with the more serious crime of second-degree rape for allegedly raping the woman while she was sleeping in the living room of a friend's apartment in Walla Walla early on the morning of March 16, 2008. Pettett and the woman reportedly had gone there after a party.

She contacted police the next day and Pettett was arrested a few days later.

He was released from jail the following month after bail was posted. He remains free pending sentencing.

Had Pettett been convicted of the rape charge, he could have been sent to prison for 78-102 months. But Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Michelle Mulhern told Judge John Lohrmann at Monday's hearing she may have had difficulty proving the case against Pettett had it gone to trial. Therefore she agreed to reduce the charge in exchange for Pettett's guilty plea.

"We were concerned we would have a hung jury or worse and decided to resolve it in this way," Mulhern said.

Pettett is certain the sexual encounter was consensual; the woman is certain it wasn't. "There was a lot of alcohol in the mix and memories are not as clear as they could have been," Mulhern said.

Pettett won't have to register as a sex offender because second-degree assault is not a sex offense. But Mulhern said an evaluation determined Pettett is not a risk to the general population and "does not need as close an eye as sex offenders in general."

Mulhern added that the victim felt violated and wants justice to be served, but the guilty plea avoids her having to testify at a trial.

Although second-degree rape is included in a more serious category of crimes, second-degree assault still is defined by state law as a "most serious" offense, which is a strike. Defense attorney Julie Carlson told Lohrmann, "This is something that will follow (Pettett) for the rest of his life."

Carlson also said Pettett has been apologetic and cooperative with officers.

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