A Portland man was acquitted last month after being granted a new trial on appeal, nearly five years after he was convicted in connection with an undercover child sex sting.
A Clark County Superior Court jury Sept. 8 acquitted Jace Hambrick, 27, of attempted second-degree rape of a child and communicating with a minor for immoral purposes.
He was one of several people arrested in February 2017 after responding to an advertisement posted by an interagency task force posing as minors online.
In Hambrick’s case, he responded to a Vancouver detective’s post in the Casual Encounters category of Craigslist about a girl looking for someone to talk to about video games. Initially, that’s what the conversation centered on.
Court records show the detective messaging Hambrick said multiple times they were a 13-year-old girl before and after the conversation turned sexual in nature. Hambrick, then 20, expressed doubt that a 13-year-old would be posting on Craigslist, and, at one point, he said he thought the fictitious girl was joking about her age.
When Hambrick arrived at a Vancouver apartment to meet the girl, detectives arrested him, according to a probable cause affidavit.
On May 21, 2018, Hambrick’s bench trial began in Clark County. The following day, Judge Gregory Gonzales found Hambrick guilty of both counts, court records show.
Despite his convictions, Hambrick maintained his innocence. His defense attorney at that time filed multiple motions, including asking the judge to reconsider his verdict and to vacate the convictions. All of the motions were denied, according to court records.
In November 2018, the judge sentenced Hambrick to 18 months in prison, which was an exceptionally low sentence. He was also ordered to register as a sex offender, court records show.
Hambrick appealed on the basis of insufficient evidence and that his right to a jury trial was violated because he didn’t personally sign a waiver.
His case was featured in an August 2020 story by The New York Times Magazine that explored online-predator stings in Washington.
Two years after he was sentenced, the Washington Court of Appeals issued its opinion that Hambrick’s right to a jury trial was violated by his lack of signature, and the court vacated his convictions. By then, he had already served his sentence.
The appeals court, however, did not find there was insufficient evidence for his convictions. His case was set for a new trial, which began in front of a jury this time, Sept. 5, according to court records.
Hambrick’s defense attorney, Charles Lane, raised several issues with the investigation. He said Craigslist requires users to affirm they are at least 18 years old, so Hambrick assumed he was talking to an adult.
At one point in the conversation, Hambrick asked the fictitious girl to send him a photo. The photo he received was of a 24-year-old woman, who turned out to be a Vancouver police officer, Lane said. That officer also answered the door when Hambrick arrived at the apartment, court records show.
In a police interview, Hambrick told officers that if he arrived to find the person he was messaging was actually a 13-year-old, he would’ve left, and he said he had no intention of having sex with a minor, court records state.
Hambrick had no criminal history, court records state, and a law enforcement search of his phone did not turn up any evidence of sexual misconduct with minors.
One juror, Rik Smoody, said the majority of the jury was in favor of convicting Hambrick when it first began deliberations. But as the jurors continued to discuss the case, they found enough reasons to cast doubt that Hambrick was seeking a minor, he said.
The juror said the evidence showed Hambrick was cooperative “perhaps to a fault.” He said Hambrick let law enforcement search his things, and he answered all of their questions.
When the jury was shown the photo the detective sent Hambrick, Smoody agreed the woman did not look like a minor. He said Hambrick never wavered that he thought the person in the photo was an adult.
“It was entirely credible that he was checking it out because she might’ve been for real,” Smoody said. “And in fact, there she was — she stood in front of him and opened the door — all 20-something woman.”
Smoody said he finds the type of online sting like that in Hambrick’s case to be wrong. He said he believed law enforcement was casting too wide of a net.
Lane, the defense attorney, said when the sting operations first began, defense attorneys and prosecutors alike didn’t know much about how they were operated or funded. At the time of Hambrick’s case, investigators did not do enough to ensure the suspects were actually intending to meet minors, he said. Since then, agencies have made changes to how they conduct the stings, he added.
While Lane said Hambrick’s case isn’t an outlier, he said it’s unusual that he was acquitted.
“When you ask someone, ‘What do you think about child predators?’ Of course, no one likes that,” Lane said. “Law enforcement knows that and they play on that.”