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A man charged with a sex crime involving a 4-year-old girl signed a plea deal with a prosecutor the same day he was set to stand trial.

Michael Pickell, of Bismarck, was charged in November with felony gross sexual imposition. That charge was reduced in the plea agreement to misdemeanor sexual assault.

Court documents allege Pickell inappropriately touched the girl over her clothing on multiple occasions between 2014 and 2015. As a 7-year-old, the girl reported the crimes to her guardians.

Pickell's attorney, Scott Rose, said Pickell entered an Alford plea, meaning he maintains his innocence but acknowledges evidence likely to convict him.

South Central District Judge Cynthia Feland sentenced Pickell on Wednesday to two years of supervised probation. He must also do a sex offender evaluation and complete any recommended treatment, as well as have no contact with the victim or minors.

The case took an unusual turn when Feland issued an order the day before Pickell's trial that "precluded the attorneys from asking specific types of questions that we would normally be able to ask" during jury selection, according to Rose.

Rose said he and Burleigh County assistant state's attorney Marina Spahr "made objections before the court, challenging this order and its precluding our ability to ask questions that may provide us more information about whether a juror is impartial."

Right before opening arguments were set to take place, a plea deal was reached between the parties.

Spahr said there are multiple factors that go into deciding whether to offer a plea deal, but in this case, trial procedure issues played a big part.

"The trial procedure that was being used was, in my opinion, unusual and it changed the course of how we try the case and how we view the case," Spahr said.

Spahr said despite the charge being reduced, the state still obtained justice for the crime, though neither she nor the family agree with the outcome.

Pickell will not have to register as a sex offender.

Rose said the outcome of case "is a win," adding that his client is pleased.

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(Reach Blair Emerson at 701-250-8251 or Blair.Emerson@bismarcktribune.com)

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