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Judge vacates Clews' sentence, sets new sentencing hearing

New information in the case of Christian Clews, a Carmel Valley horse ranch owner sentenced last February to 17.5 years in federal prison on charges of possession and distribution of child pornography, has caused the judge in the case to vacate Clews' sentence and set a new sentencing hearing in March.

Federal District Judge Dana Sabraw vacated Clews' sentence in November, after prosecutors presented new information at a hearing last June that showed a woman who claimed to have been 17 years old when she was filmed in a video tape while performing sexual acts, was in fact over 18 at the time. The woman had testified to being a minor when the alleged crime was committed during Clews' sentencing hearing.

"She said, quote, I am one of Christian Clews' victims. At the time this occurred I was still only just a kid, only 17 years old," said Clews' attorney, Devin Burstein, at a hearing before Sabraw in June, according to a transcript of the hearing. "What is the tragedy here, at least from the defense perspective, is that it is just not true."

Forensic examination of the video, performed after Clews' sentencing, determined that it was taken a year later than prosecutors originally believed, meaning the alleged victim was a year older than she had maintained, said assistant U.S. Attorney Renee Green, the lead prosecutor in the case.

"I apologize to the court for the errors that we did make, but certainly they were not intentional," Green told Sabraw at the hearing in June according to the transcript.

Clews pleaded guilty to one count each of possession and distribution of child pornography in July 2017, following a two-year investigation by federal and local law enforcement. When his ranch was searched in the fall of 2016, investigators said they found numerous still and video images of child pornography on computers they seized. In addition to owning and operating the family horse ranch, Clews served for a number of years on the Carmel Valley Planning Board.

At Clews' sentencing in February 2018, Sabraw said the case was much more serious than simple possession or distribution of child pornography, since five adult women alleged that Clews had had improper sexual contact with them when they were minors. Those allegations, which the judge said at the time were backed up by videos seized from Clews, led to a harsher sentence.

According to court documents, Burstein told the judge in June that in addition to the alleged victim who was over 18, a second alleged victim was a year older than she had claimed and was actually two days short of 18 when one of the videos was filmed.

In his comments in court, Burstein said it did not appear that prosecutors intentionally misled the judge, and he faulted Clews' previous attorney for not thoroughly investigating the allegations of improper sexual contact with minors, which Clews has denied. Burstein began representing Clews after the February sentencing hearing.

"What I think we have here, your honor, is a fundamental breakdown in the adversarial system," Burstein told Sabraw at the June hearing, according to the transcript.

Burstein said after prosecutors presented their evidence, it was up to an "actively zealous defense lawyer" to test the evidence. "When that doesn't happen the court is hampered because the court only has one perspective. Right? Not the other side of the story. Nobody has stepped up to test the evidence," Burstein said, according to the transcript of the June hearing.

Burstein also told the judge that the court had not seen mitigating evidence on Clews' behalf, such as sexual abuse allegedly suffered by Clews.

While Green conceded that the one alleged victim was not a minor, she said at the hearing in June that the enhanced sentence handed down to Clews was still justified by other evidence presented at the February 2018 sentencing hearing.

"We still believe that the (enhancement) was supported by a significant amount of evidence, even outside of the age of this particular victim," Green said according to the transcript. "There were multiple sexual acts with minors that were documented and that were described at the hearing."

Green declined to comment, as the case is still pending before Sabraw's court.

In an email, Burstein noted that after the new information was presented, prosecutors agreed with the defense that a new sentencing hearing was warranted.

"I can tell you that, while he has certainly made mistakes, Mr. Clews is a good person. We believe the allegations that he had improper sexual conduct with anyone are entirely false. We have every confidence that Judge Sabraw will give us a fair hearing and impose a reasonable sentence," Burstein wrote.

Sabraw has granted a defense request to have a psychological evaluation of Clews conducted. The new sentencing hearing is scheduled before Sabraw at 9:30 a.m. on March 14.

Clews remains in federal custody pending his re-sentencing hearing.

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