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State v. Terronez

Supreme Court of Montana

December 6, 2017

STATE OF MONTANA, Plaintiff and Appellant,
JASON TERRONEZ, Defendant and Appellee.

          Submitted on Briefs: October 4, 2017

         District Court of the Tenth Judicial District, In and For the County of Fergus, Cause No. DC-2015-18 Honorable Randal I. Spaulding, Presiding Judge

          For Appellant: Timothy C. Fox, Montana Attorney General, Tammy K Plubell, Assistant Attorney General; Helena, Montana, Thomas P. Meissner, Fergus County Attorney, Jean A. Adams, Deputy Fergus County Attorney; Lewistown, Montana.

          For Appellee: Michael J. Sherwood, Michael J. Sherwood, P.C.; Missoula, Montana.



         ¶1 The State of Montana appeals from the order entered by the Tenth Judicial District Court, Fergus County, granting Defendant Jason Terronez' (Terronez) motion to withdraw his guilty plea. We affirm, addressing the following issues:

1. Is the State authorized to appeal the District Court's order granting Terronez' motion to withdraw his guilty plea?
2. Did the District Court err by determining that good cause existed to permit Terronez to withdraw his guilty plea?


         ¶2 David and Sunnshine Welton are both dentists and owned Montana Family Dentistry in Lewistown, Montana. They have two children: a girl, L.W. and a boy, M.W. Dana and Jason Terronez are nurses and worked at Central Montana Medical Center in Lewistown. They have four children: three girls and one boy. Dana and Terronez were patients at the Weltons' dental clinic and the families became close friends-sharing meals, weekend gatherings, and holidays.

         ¶3 Sunnshine was sexually abused as a child, which made her apprehensive about letting her children participate in sleepovers with other families. She described herself as a "paranoid" mom who is hypersensitive about sexual abuse issues. As a precaution, Sunnshine educated her children about "good touch" and "bad touch" and initiated such conversations with them every six months. However, she trusted Terronez and Dana, and had permitted her daughter, five-year-old L.W., to sleep over at the Terronez household prior to the incident in question. On March 7, 2015, she again allowed L.W. to sleep over at the Terronez residence. L.W. watched a movie with Terronez and his three girls, including Terronez' oldest daughter, nine-year-old A.T. Dana was in and out of the living room while the others watched the movie, during which Terronez was seated next to L.W. After the movie, Dana asked L.W. if she wanted to go home, and L.W. said she wanted to stay at the Terronez household.

         ¶4 On March 8, L.W. was sitting on the toilet and told Sunnshine it hurt when she peed. L.W. also reported that, while bathing, her vagina hurt. On March 10, L.W. again complained that her vagina hurt, and Sunnshine washed it. On March 11, L.W. told Sunnshine that, during the movie at Terronez' house, Terronez had put his hand into her pajamas and touched her vagina. Sunnshine informed David, and then immediately reported this to the Lewistown Police Department. The same day, Sunnshine took L.W. to her physician, Dr. Bolstad, for a sexual abuse examination. Because more than 72 hours had lapsed since the reported contact, Dr. Bolstad did not collect biological evidence. The examination revealed L.W.'s external genitalia was normal, but internally there were four discrete areas of injury. Dr. Bolstad diagnosed the injuries as sexual abuse based on the areas of injury and what L.W. reported.

         ¶5 Officer Jenness interviewed A.T., who had also been in the room watching the movie at the Terronez residence. A.T. initially stated that, during the movie, she was sitting next to Terronez, but later admitted she lied to prevent Terronez from getting into trouble. However, none of Terronez' daughters or Dana reported they had seen Terronez do what L.W. had reported. At defense counsel's request, Officer Jenness also interviewed Sunnshine's brother-in-law, Jeremy Baxter, as a possible suspect. Baxter had watched L.W. and M.W. a week prior to the sleepover. Sunnshine had commented that Baxter looked like a pedophile, but later said her comment was meant as a joke. This inquiry by police did not yield any evidence implicating Baxter. Other males in L.W.'s life at the time were her brother, seven-year-old M.W., and her father, David.

         ¶6 On March 12, the State charged Terronez with one count of sexual intercourse without consent via digital penetration. On March 16, Honorable Jon A. Oldenburg, District Judge, recused himself from the case after David confronted him at a local restaurant, and Honorable Randal I. Spaulding assumed jurisdiction of the case. Terronez was initially represented by attorney Craig Buehler, but on April 6, a notice of substitution of counsel was filed indicating that Jeffry Foster had assumed representation of Terronez. Foster filed a motion for change of venue, arguing a reasonable apprehension existed that Terronez could not receive a fair trial in Fergus County because of: (1) the small size of the Fergus County jury pool; (2) the heinous nature of the crime; (3) both families' relationships and standing in the community; (4) statements about the case made by the Weltons to others in person and on social media; and (5) concerns expressed by court staff and law enforcement about Terronez' safety. The District Court denied the motion, but stated the matter would be reconsidered if concerns arose during voir dire. Foster also filed a motion for production of all of L.W.'s medical records by the State. After an in-camera review, the court denied the motion, reasoning the records were "devoid of any evidence that can fairly be characterized as exculpatory or useful as impeachment evidence."

         ¶7 On September 21, 2015, the trial began and the parties selected a jury over the next two days. That morning, the court held a final pretrial conference in-chambers with Terronez, Foster, Deputy County Attorney Jean Adams, Deputy County Attorney Monte Boettger, and Officer Jenness. Foster reported he had received a "tongue lashing" from Sunnshine and recommended that the Weltons be excluded from trial. The court indicated it had "personally observed some facial expressions and hand gestures and things during the course of testimony" from the Weltons that caused "considerable concern about potential mistrial." The court ordered the Weltons be excluded from trial until they testify, upon which it would re-evaluate the situation. On September 22, the court had a conference in-chambers with the same parties. Adams reported that Sunnshine may have had a purposeful encounter with a prospective juror in the women's restroom. Foster moved to extend the Weltons' exclusion from the courthouse for the entirety of the trial. After interviewing a witness to the incident, the court granted the request, basing its decision mainly on David's earlier confrontation with Judge Oldenburg and Sunnshine's encounter with potential jurors.[1] Foster renewed his motion for a change of venue, but the court denied the motion, stating instead it would admonish the jurors not to talk about the case.

         ¶8 On September 23, the court held another conference with the same parties in-chambers. Officer Jenness brought to the court's attention a report that David, while viewing the proceeding remotely, had stated that if the jury found Terronez not guilty, he would "take care of it himself." The parties discussed increased protection for Terronez. On Friday, September 25, at another in-chambers conference with the same parties, Officer Jenness reported to the court that, sometime during the previous evening, a large chunk of concrete had been thrown through the windshield of Foster's vehicle while it was parked outside the Terronez household. Foster renewed his motion for change of venue and also moved for a mistrial, stating the culmination of issues had "infect[ed] [the] proceeding." The court denied the motion, but again sternly admonished the jurors. Foster expressed his concern, stating he had not "had a lot of time to process" what had occurred and he "just [didn't] know what to do or how to handle" the incident. Foster also expressed his concern for the Terronez children, who were also witnesses, and the ...

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