Alabama official appeals "illegal" sentence that allowed convicted rapist to walk free

If the current sentence holds, Austin Smith Clem will serve no jail time for raping a 14-year-old girl

Published November 18, 2013 2:29PM (EST)

In September, an Alabama jury found 25-year-old Austin Smith Clem guilty of raping a teenage acquaintance three times -- twice when she was 14, and again when she was 18. But he won't serve a day in prison for his crimes.

As Molly Redden at Mother Jones reports, Limestone County Circuit Judge James Woodroof sentenced Clem to 10 years in prison for each of the second-degree rape charges and 20 years for first-degree rape, but he structured the sentence so that Clem will only serve two years in a rehabilitation program and three years of probation.

Clem's defense attorney Dan Totten defended the extraordinarily lenient sentence to Mother Jones, explaining, "It would seem to be relatively mild, but [Clem's] lifestyle for the next six years is going to be very controlled. … If he goes to a party and they're serving beer, he can't say, 'Can I have one?' If he wanted to go across the Tennessee line, which as the crow flies is eight or nine miles from his house, and buy a lottery ticket, he can't do that. … It's not a slap on the wrist."

But not everyone in Limestone County is convinced that preventing a rapist from buying lottery tickets counts as meaningful justice.

District Attorney Brian Jones on Saturday filed a motion with the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals to set aside the original sentence, calling it "illegal" and requesting that Clem be sent to prison until the court can rule on the appeal.

More from the Decatur Daily:

Jones submitted a writ of mandamus asking the appeals court to force Judge James Woodroof Jr. to vacate his sentence of Clem on the first-degree rape charge “on the grounds that said order exceeds his judicial authority and is so contrary as to cause a gross disruption of criminal justice.”

Woodroof sentenced Clem on Wednesday to a 20-year split sentence in which he will serve two years in Community Corrections and three years of supervised probation. The judge suspended the remaining 15 years.

Jones said state law does not allow a split sentence on first-degree rape charge in which the convicted felon serves in Community Corrections.

“We had to appeal,” Jones told The Decatur Daily on Saturday. “It’s an illegal sentence.”


Jones’ motion asks the court to decide whether Woodroof violated the state statute on a 20-year sentence with a two-year split.

He also asks the court to decide whether Woodroof violated state law by using a Community Correction sentence for a first-degree rape charge.

Jones contends Community Correction is not allowable on first-degree rape. He wrote that a judge may order a “confinement not exceeding five years but no less than three years” on a split 20-year sentence.

Decatur attorney Dwight Jett Jr., who is not involved in the case, said it’s uncommon for a prosecutor to appeal a sentence.

“I don’t know if it’s ever happened in Morgan County,” Jett said.

By Katie McDonough

Katie McDonough is Salon's politics writer, focusing on gender, sexuality and reproductive justice. Follow her on Twitter @kmcdonovgh or email her at

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