Accused Moffat County teacher Justin Folley’s fate hangs in balance as main witnesses testify Friday in child sexual exploitation case
Editor’s Note: This newspaper does not publish the names of victims in cases of alleged sexual assault or abuse, nor does it publish the names of minors involved in criminal proceedings. Those names have been withheld in this story.
CRAIG — The trial of former Moffat County High School teacher Justin Folley continued Friday as the prosecution called its main witnesses in the case, including the alleged victim, herself, and Folley’s wife, Shana Folley.
Folley is accused of eliciting three nude photographs from a student during an exchange of sexual text messages and of sending her a video of himself masturbating. In the courtroom, Folley sat quietly next to his attorneys, donning a dark goatee and a bright blue, collared shirt, which became the item used by witnesses to identify him throughout the day.
Several witnesses — high school friends of the victim in the case — testified that the victim had told them of her relationship with Folley and the sexual messages they had exchanged, but according to Folley’s attorneys, the case rests exclusively on the question of whether those exchanges included images and videos.
“These pictures, they don’t exist. And the video, you will never see it,” Deputy Public Defender Kiyomi Bolick said in the defense’s opening statements. “Three photographs, one video — that’s what this case comes down to.”
As the defense established during the jury selection process Thursday, it is actually not against the law for an adult, even a teacher, to send messages of a sexual nature to a minor, so long as the messages contain only words and not images.
The 14th Judicial District Attorney’s Office could not provide copies of the images or video, as they had been allegedly exchanged over Snapchat, an app that automatically deletes images after a short viewing window.
As of Friday, the only other potential witness expected to know anything about the alleged images and video was Travis Young, a former detective with the Craig Police Department who interviewed the victim in May 2017. But things took a surprise turn when, over lunch Friday, prosecutors discovered another witness — an 18-year-old MCHS graduate — who allegedly had knowledge of the images and video.
District Court Judge Shelley Hill disallowed the witness’ testimony regarding the images, however.
The prosecution and defense argued over legal minutiae regarding the witness’ testimony while the jury was in recess, but Hill ultimately disallowed it on the basis that the information had come to light too late, potentially compromising Folley’s right to a fair trial.
“This is a huge game changer,” Hill told Deputy District Attorney Matt Karzen. “By revealing it on the second day of true trial, you deprive Mr. Folley of being able to meaningfully evaluate his offers in terms of pre-trial options … and I’m not going to allow it. … This is something you should have known. This is huge.”
The witness did not return to the stand.
One key witness was 20-year-old Sarye Morgan, a 2017 Moffat County High School graduate and the victim’s best friend in high school.
Morgan provided the DA with one of its biggest pieces of evidence in the case: 30 pages of screenshots of sexually elicit text messages Folley and the victim exchanged during her freshman year of high school. In the messages, Folley described sexual acts he would like to perform on the victim, including oral sex and allusions to sexual intercourse. He also asked the victim, via text message, if she masturbated.
The victim had deleted all the messages from her own phone but had shared this particular set of messages with Morgan via Facebook Messenger. Morgan had kept them, despite the victim’s request that she delete them.
In cross-examining Morgan, however, the defense made clear that absent from those screenshots were any of the alleged images or video the charges are based on.
The victim herself, now 19 years old and appearing confident and unperturbed, took the stand after Morgan, waiting at length as the jurors reviewed the 30 pages of text messages. The courtroom was silent except for the turning of pages, and beyond a few furrowed brows, jurors showed little reaction to the explicit messages.
The victim answered questions about her relationship with Folley — he was her teacher her freshman and senior years of high school, as well as her baseball coach her junior year. The sexual text messages began the second semester of her freshman year.
“He asked if I had some app on my phone called Hangouts, asked me to download it, and I did, and he started talking to me over Hangouts,” the victim told Karzen during questioning. “Probably towards the end of freshman year … he said that he had a sexual dream about me, and I ended up being curious what that could possibly be, and he told me about it.”
The messages continued through the summer, and off and on through the course of her high school career, even during school hours on some occasions. She then recalled where she was when he asked her to send pictures of herself — the bathroom — and the month — July — but not the year nor the exact number of photos — either two or three, she said.
The defense pressed her on why she didn’t initially tell law enforcement officers when she was asked about it on two occasions — the first was during her junior year, when she was called to the principal’s office.
“I was very much embarrassed and disgusted with myself that this happened,” the victim said. “The first occasion, I was very shocked it even came up (with school officials). I even told them to go through my phone, hoping they would, because I had more texts I hadn’t deleted yet.”
The victim appeared unfazed by defense questioning, answering assertively as the defense sought to challenge her memory and why she didn’t tell more of her close friends and her sister, specifically, about the nude photographs and video.
“It was weird and embarrassing. I told her everything else, but that was too much,” the victim said of the conversation with her sister.
Throughout the day, the 14th Judicial District Attorney’s Office tried to establish a pattern of behavior that Folley had sent messages with sexual innuendos to several female students over the course of his career, arguing that he regularly engaged in the classic “grooming” behaviors of a sexual abuser.
Two young women testified to their own uncomfortable text message exchanges with Folley; one, a 25-year-old MCHS grad, and the other, a 17-year-old MCHS senior.
Folley’s wife, Shana Folley, also took the stand, her testimony lasting only about 3 minutes. Before proceedings began, a defense objection revealed that the couple is in the process of getting a divorce, however, for procedural reasons, Shana Folley was required to identify herself to the jury simply as Justin Folley’s wife.
Seemingly, the main purpose of her appearance was to identify Folley’s profile picture in a text exchange with the alleged victim. In an emotional moment, she confirmed it was a photo of Folley with their daughter on his shoulders.
The jury was released early on Friday and informed the trial is expected to end Monday instead of Tuesday. The prosecution rested its case, and only two more potential witnesses are expected to testify for the defense on Monday.
Contact Lauren Blair at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @LaurenBNews.