Jason Terronez of Lewistown, accused more than six years ago of sexually abusing a 5-year-old girl, was sentenced this week to probation. Judge Randall Spaulding sentenced Terronez, 39 years old, on March 16 after hearing emotional testimony from the parents of the child victim.
Diane Cochran, the Deputy Fergus County Attorney, provided the information in a news release on Thursday.
According to Cochran, the parents had asked Judge Spaulding to commit Terronez to the Montana Department of Corrections. Instead, the judge ordered that Terronez’s sentence be suspended and that he be released into the community immediately. Terronez will be supervised in the community by a probation officer for ten years. Additionally, the judge did not impose any fine for the crime and waived Terronez’s responsibility to pay any fees, including his responsibility to reimburse the state Office of Public Defender for representing him.
Fergus County Attorney Kent Sipe said of the sentence: "Mr. Terronez’s decision to abuse a child has destroyed families and irreparably damaged multiple people. He should have been committed to the Department of Corrections.”
The Lewistown Police Department, which investigated the crime, was disappointed with the outcome of the case.
“This case should serve as a prime example of why legislative changes need to be made to ensure justice for the victims and their families of violent crimes,” Chief of Police Justin Jenness said.
A probationary sentence for a person who sexually abuses a child is legal under current Montana law. Sipe said that, even though it is legal, judges should not impose such sentences. “Communities rely on judges to hold offenders accountable,” Sipe said. “A probationary sentence does not hold this offender accountable, and it revictimizes the child, her family, and the entire community.”
Sipe agreed with Jenness that the law should be changed to require child offenders to serve time: “Unfortunately, what the court has done is determine that the offender’s rehabilitation trumps the victim’s right to justice,” Sipe said. “Time and again, we have seen courts place child sexual offenders into the community without accountability or punishment. When the public finds out, people are angry, but the judges don’t change. We need to change the law.”
Terronez was charged with felony sexual intercourse without consent in March 2015. Last November, he entered an Alford plea to an amended charge of sexual assault. A person who enters an Alford plea admits that the prosecution could prove its case and, after sentencing, the person is convicted of the crime.
Terronez’s plea occurred after nine hours of mediation between Terronez; his court-appointed attorney Robert Snively of Hardin; Assistant Attorney General Daniel Guzynski of Helena; and Sipe.
The parties signed a plea agreement pursuant to which the prosecution agreed to recommend that Terronez be sentenced to the Montana Department of Corrections for ten years with six years suspended. The agreement permitted Terronez’s attorney to argue for any lawful sentence.
Terronez had previously pled guilty in September 2015 to the same amended charge of sexual assault. He changed his plea after the victim testified on the seventh day of trial on the sexual intercourse without consent charge. When he pled guilty, Terronez admitted in open court that he sexually abused the child.
Terronez’s attorney, Jeffry Foster of Great Falls, was found deceased in his room at the Yogo Inn in Lewistown the next day. An investigation by the Montana Division of Criminal Investigation did not show any signs of foul play in Foster’s death, and investigators concluded he died by suicide.
After Foster’s death, Terronez filed a motion to withdraw his guilty plea in February 2016, claiming that Foster provided him with ineffective legal counsel.
The Fergus County Attorney’s Office opposed the motion. Judge Spaulding granted the motion in September 2016. At the request of the County Attorney’s Office, the Attorney General’s Office appealed the decision to the Montana Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court found that Foster’s legal advice to Terronez was not ineffective. Nonetheless, the Court held that Judge Spaulding was correct to allow Terronez to withdraw his guilty plea because of “pervasive air of fear” during the trial.
“I was the investigator in this incident six years ago, and I know first-hand the devastation Terronez’s actions created for so many lives in our community,” Jenness said. “The judge’s ruling in this case is appalling and is a slap in the face towards the child victim, and her family. In light of many highly publicized rulings from other judges around the state in sexual assault cases, it is unfathomable that Judge Spaulding has decided to allow Terronez to walk away a free man, with no prison sentence and no fine. I want the community to know that we take sexual assault allegations seriously, and vow to continue to investigate these crimes to the fullest extent, so that justice may one day be served. Sadly, the 5-year-old victim in Terronez’s case will not get justice.”