Justin Folley, former Moffat County High School teacher, coach, acquitted on child sexual exploitation charges
CRAIG — Family members and witnesses had been waiting in the halls of Moffat County Courthouse Monday afternoon to learn the jury’s verdict in the trial of former Moffat County High School teacher and coach Justin Folley. And as they seated themselves in the courtroom, they did so according to whether they were on the side of the defense or the side of the prosecution.
District Court Judge Shelley Hill read the verdict.
“As to all counts, we the jury find the defendant not guilty.”
Folley was charged with 10 felony counts of sexual exploitation of a child based on evidence that he allegedly elicited three nude photographs of a female student over the course of a sexually explicit text message exchange and that he sent her a video of himself masturbating.
Each alleged image had three charges attached to it; two class 3 felonies and one class 6 felony. One charge was brought on account of the alleged video. The sentence per each convicted class 3 felony could have ranged from four to 16 years in prison.
The exchange of sexually explicit verbal text messages between Folley and the victim — who was 14 or 15 years old at the time — was more than evident: jurors reviewed 30 pages of screenshots of those messages describing sexual acts he said he would like to perform on the victim.
But those messages contained no direct evidence of images or video, and as the defense reiterated during jury selection and throughout the trial, it is not against the law for an adult, even a teacher, to send messages of a sexual nature to a minor, so long as those messages contain words only and not images.
The 14th Judicial District Attorney’s Office could not provide copies of the alleged images or video themselves, as they had allegedly been exchanged over Snapchat, an app that automatically deletes images after a short viewing window.
As the verdict was read, the victim’s sister, who was seated in the back of the courtroom, began to weep. She and several other young women — witnesses in the trial — were quickly ushered away as they, too, burst into tears. At least two dozen friends, family, and observers were present in the courtroom to hear the verdict.
The final day of the trial included only two witness testimonies for the defense, a lengthy discussion of legal minutiae, and impassioned closing arguments from both defenders and prosecutors.
“What those text messages represent are the enticement, the inducement, the groundwork, the precursor, to much more sexually explicit interaction. Just as important, those text messages show us what Justin Folley was willing to do,” said 14th Judicial District Deputy District Attorney Matt Karzen during his closing argument.
Deputy Public Defender Kiyomi Bolick reminded jurors once again, however, that their job was to set aside any outrage they might be feeling and follow the letter of the law.
“It doesn’t matter how badly you want there to be criminal consequences, that’s not your job as a juror,” Bolick told the jury in her closing argument. “This case is not about the messages. This case is about three alleged photographs and one video.”
Folley elected not to take the stand Monday as the defense called two other witnesses. Former Craig Police Department investigator Travis Young testified first, answering questions from Public Defender Sheryl Uhlmann regarding whether he obtained cellphone records related to the case.
Young was lead investigator on the case and interviewed the victim and several witnesses in May 2017, leading to the charges against Folley.
Uhlmann wanted to know whether Young had sought a court order or search warrant to retrieve cellphone records or records from the phone applications Snapchat or Google Hangouts, which were allegedly used by Folley and the victim to exchange sexually explicit texts, images, and the video.
Young had not.
During cross-examination, Karzen noted that Young began the investigation in 2017 of incidents dating as far back as 2013, a length of time that makes it less likely archived information would be available.
But the next witness, criminal defense investigator Christopher Carbone, testified for the defense that he had seen Snapchat records — albeit not containing images or content, per se — retrieved from as long as four years prior.
The defense opened the day’s proceedings with a motion for judgment of acquittal, arguing several points against the charges. They argued there was insufficient evidence to support that Folley had knowingly possessed the images of the victim or that the photos existed for sexual purposes.
“There is plenty of evidence to conclude beyond a reasonable doubt that the photos were for sexual purposes,” Karzen responded.
Hill denied the motion.
The defense also moved for mistrial following closing arguments, claiming that prosecutors had engaged in character attacks and tried to rile the passions of the jurors by calling Folley a predator and criticizing the defense’s arguments.
Hill also denied this motion.
With closing arguments completed shortly after 2 p.m. Monday, the jury then took about 2 1/2 hours to reach its unanimous verdict.
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