The Montana Supreme Court has upheld a motion for Jason Terronez to withdraw his guilty plea on a charge of sexual intercourse without consent.
Terronez was charged in March of 2015 with sexually assaulting a five-year-old girl.
According to the Montana Supreme Court, the victim’s parents had inappropriate contact with jurors, and acts of intimidation and violence were directed at defense attorney Jeffry Foster. The parents were also removed from the courtroom and required to observe the trial electronically.
The District Court found that there was “pervasive air of fear” during the trial that affected Terronez and Foster.
During the trial, Terronez agreed to plead guilty to a lesser charge of felony sexual assault.
Court documents state that prior to the change of plea hearing, Sheriff’s deputies and Lewistown police officers cleared the courthouse and were posted in plainclothes and in uniform throughout the building.
During the hearing, the court informed Terronez of the rights he was giving up and Terronez confirmed verbally and in writing that he was giving a knowing, voluntary and intelligent plea.
Court documents state: “Terronez apologized to (the victim) in accordance with the plea agreement and the proceeding concluded.
Foster drove back to the Yogo Hotel with a police escort. Tragically, in the early hours of the next morning, Foster committed suicide in his hotel room.”
The Supreme Court agreed with the State that there were plausible explanations for Foster’s actions and that he had provided reasonable professional assistance to Terronez, but nonetheless affirmed the District Court’s decision to permit Terronez to withdraw his plea based upon the extreme circumstances that the District Court found had created a “pervasive air of fear” during the trial, and upon the District Court’s observations about the impact of these events upon Foster and Terronez.
The Montana Supreme Court said in its ruling: “The District Court made the factual determination that Foster was personally impacted and his performance was affected by the threatening behaviors from the outset of this case. These findings were not clearly erroneous. Through Foster, Terronez was impacted and his plea was at least partially induced by these events.”
The Montana Supreme Court then upheld the District Court’s decision to allow Terronez to withdraw the guilty plea.
The Montana Supreme Court provided the following synopsis:
Jason Terronez was charged with sexual intercourse without consent after a five-year-old girl, the daughter of family friends, reported that Terronez had molested her while watching a movie together at his house. Terronez retained attorney Jeffry Foster as his defense counsel.
The proceedings were marked by confrontations initiated by the victim’s parents, inappropriate contact with jurors, and acts of intimidation and violence directed at defense counsel Foster, including the smashing of his vehicle’s windshield with a chunk of concrete.
During the trial, the victim’s parents were removed from the courtroom and required to observe the trial electronically. Midway through the trial, the State offered a plea agreement whereby Terronez would plead guilty to the lesser offense of felony sexual assault, which Terronez accepted. In an evening court session conducted under tight security, the parties reconvened and the District Court presided over the finalization of the plea agreement and the entry of Terronez’ guilty plea.
Tragically, defense counsel Foster returned his hotel that evening and committed suicide.
Terronez moved the District Court to withdraw his guilty plea and rescind the plea agreement, arguing that his plea was involuntarily entered because defense counsel Foster had rendered ineffective service. The District Court granted the request, basing its decision primarily on its assessment that Foster’s performance as defense counsel had been deficient, but also noting what it described as a “pervasive air of fear” surrounding the proceedings – intimidation, threats, inappropriate behaviors, and acts of violence—and the District Court’s own observations of the impact these events had upon Foster, who the District Court described as appearing uncharacteristically indecisive about strategic decisions.
The State of Montana appealed to the Montana Supreme Court, arguing that there were reasonable explanations for Foster’s actions and Terronez should not have been entitled to withdraw his plea.