Former School Principal Charged In Sex Sting Waives Appearance At Sentencing Because Of COVID Concerns

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

A former elementary school principal from Cleveland, Tn., who was caught in a child sex sting is asking that his sentencing be by video conference because he is afraid he might get COVID by being brought to court.

Federal Judge Travis McDonough has granted the request of Mark Pickel, 52, for the sentencing at the Federal Building on Thursday morning.

Attorney Joe Austin said Pickel "has serious medical issues stemming from multiple organ transplants that have required numerous visits to Vanderbilt University Medical Center during his detention at the Hamilton County Jail."

Judge McDonough said, "Standing Order 20-08 authorizes this Court to permit any defendant to waive her or his personal appearance in court in order to eliminate the exposure risks inherent in an in-person court appearance. . . Mr. Pickel wishes to waive his physical presence in the courtroom and requests that his sentencing hearing be held via video conferencing."

The judge also said, "There is no question that Defendant will put himself at greater risk of contracting COVID-19 by traveling to the courthouse for his sentencing hearing. The disease spreads most readily between people in close physical proximity through respiratory droplets. In his journey from his present detention facility to the courthouse, Defendant will be forced to interact very closely with additional guards at his facility, individuals responsible for his transport, marshals at the courthouse, and courthouse personnel.

"Furthermore, due to the high volume of criminal cases in this district and the outdated infrastructure of the courthouse at issue, it is also possible that Defendant will be detained in very close proximity to, or even in the same cell as, other defendants from different detention facilities who are present for their own hearings, even if the Court waits for worst of the pandemic to pass.

"Given the Court’s criminal case load, Defendant faces a long and uncertain delay between now and an in-person sentencing."

Judge McDonough also noted that Pickel has agreed to a 44-month prison sentence.

The judge stated, "Additionally, Defendant has negotiated a Rule 11(c)(1)(C) plea agreement with the government. Assuming the terms of that agreement are supported by sentencing factors the Court is obligated to consider and otherwise consistent with the law, the Court will accept the plea agreement and enter a judgment against Defendant. Under these circumstances, there is no good reason to force Defendant into a lengthy delay of his sentencing hearing and subsequent transfer to a superior Bureau of Prison facility only to increase his risks of contracting an illness in the process." 

Pickel earlier entered a guilty plea to possession of child pornography. He initially was charged with transportation of child pornography in interstate commerce, interstate travel with intent to engage in a sexual act with a minor, and coercion and enticement of a minor.

Pickel was assistant principal at Polk County High School July 2004-June 2008 and principal at City Park Elementary School at Athens, Tn., July 2009-2011. He was principal of Vonore Elementary July 2013-June 2014.

He has been a funeral director at funeral homes in Cleveland.


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