BILLINGS — A state prison inmate can withdraw his guilty plea to sexually assaulting a 16-year-old girl after successfully arguing he made the plea only because his attorney told him a Hispanic man could not get a fair trial in Musselshell County, the Montana Supreme Court has ruled.
One Supreme Court justice suggested the man's defense attorney be investigated for her failure to adequately investigate the case, The Billings Gazette reported (http://bit.ly/otVeqP) in Thursday's editions.
Hector Valdez-Mendoza, 26, was charged in March 2009 with providing tequila to a Roundup girl and raping her.
Before trial, attorney Kris Copenhaver filed a motion asserting that her client could not get a fair trial because he is Hispanic and from Mexico.
District Judge Randall Spaulding denied the motion, and Valdez-Mendoza pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of sexual assault.
Copenhaver withdrew from the case before sentencing. His new attorney filed a motion asking that Valdez-Mendoza be allowed to withdraw the plea because Copenhaver "convinced the defendant that he could not get a fair trial in Roundup," court records state.
Spaulding denied the motion. Valdez-Mendoza was sentenced to 10 years in prison last October.
A panel of five justices reviewed the case and concluded in a ruling issued Tuesday that Valdez-Mendoza should have been allowed to withdraw his guilty plea.
Chief Justice Mike McGrath wrote that there is a distinction between an attorney advising a client that they are unlikely to prevail at trial and telling a defendant they cannot receive a fair trial based on race or ethnicity.
"The latter ... constitutes a misrepresentation, essentially informing a defendant that they are not entitled to either an impartial jury or the presumption of innocence," he wrote.
In a concurring opinion, Justice Patricia Cotter said she would go further and order an investigation into Copenhaver's failure to adequately investigate the case and secure witness testimony.
Cotter noted that Valdez-Mendoza maintained his innocence and claimed he had a consensual relationship with the 16-year-old girl.
"Moreover, counsel conceded she did not even review the prosecutor's file until five months after Valdez-Mendoza was charged, and by the time she did so, the witnesses had left Roundup," Cotter wrote. "It's also notable that counsel testified at the hearing that she believed the sex had actually been consensual and that Valdez-Mendoza had a 'pretty strong defense case.'
"Yet she actively encouraged him to plead guilty on the premise he would not get a fair trial," Cotter wrote.
A message left by The Associated Press at Copenhaver's office Thursday was not immediately returned.