Trial of Moffat County teacher, coach Justin Folley accused of child sexual exploitation underway in Craig
CRAIG — The district courtroom was packed Thursday morning, Dec. 6, though the trial of Justin Folley had yet to begin. It was day four of an extensive jury selection process, and 100 prospective jurors squeezed onto the benches of the courtroom like sardines at the Moffat County Courthouse.
The jury pool was there to be whittled down to 14 — including 12 jurors and two alternates — to deliberate in the case of Folley, a former Moffat County High School teacher and coach charged with 10 felony counts of sexual exploitation of a child.
Folley, 36, was arrested in August 2017 after an investigation revealed alleged sexual misconduct with a former MCHS student between late 2013 and early 2015. The charges allege Folley exchanged sexually explicit messages via text and other smartphone apps with the student, who was a 15-year-old freshman when the messaging began. Specifically, the charges allege Folley incited the student to send him three nude photographs of herself and that he sent her a video of himself masturbating.
A selected group of 28 prospective jurors underwent intense questioning by prosecuting and defense attorneys Thursday, who drilled deep into jurors’ previous experiences and closely held moral beliefs that might compromise their ability to come to a fair verdict in the case.
The questions revealed some clues to the lines of argument the counsels intended to employ and to how the trial might unfold. Questions from Public Defender Sheryl Uhlmann suggested Folley might not take the stand in his own defense.
“If Mr. Folley doesn’t get up and tell his side of the story, how would you feel about that?” Uhlmann plied jurors. “Would you think he might be hiding something?”
Uhlmann’s questions also appeared to suggest prosecutors might present strong evidence that Folley sent sexually explicit verbal text messages to the student, but informed jurors that — to the surprise of many — that doing so is not illegal.
“It is not a crime for an adult person to send a child text messages — words — that are sexually explicit,” Uhlmann said. “Even if the prosecution has proven there are sexually explicit text messages, if that’s not a crime, would you be able to follow the law?”
The defense was drawing a line between what is illegal — the alleged sexually explicit images and video detailed in the charges — and what is not illegal, that is, sexually explicit messages from an adult to a child that are verbal only.
The question initially troubled many of the jurors, and 10 of them indicated they found such behavior morally objectionable. But District Court Judge Shelley Hill instructed them that the task would require them to follow the law, not their own morals.
“Anyone who’s a defendant in a criminal case has been charged with illegal conduct,” Hill explained. “That defendant can only be convicted of illegal conduct, not immoral conduct.”
The final jury selection, which was completed just after 2:30 p.m. Thursday, consisted of six men and eight women, representing a wide age range.
The jury selection process began with a pool of more than 200 prospective jurors, who arrived in three separate groups Monday and Tuesday. The court sent out a total of 400 summons for the trial, but only about 50-percent reported.
Prospective jurors were asked to complete a four-page questionnaire covering basic background information and inquiring about past experience with court proceedings or sex crimes or crimes against a child. It additionally sought to identify whether individuals had any familiarity with the case by way of conversations within the community, social media, and news coverage, and whether they knew anyone involved in the case, including potential witnesses.
Things ran slightly behind as Hill and attorneys on both sides conducted individual interviews with the vast majority of jurors; some were dismissed immediately after a review of the questionnaires, and others — those deemed good potential candidates — were told to return for the general jury selection. Jury selection was originally expected to be completed Wednesday but carried over into Thursday morning.
The district attorney’s office had expressed concern prior to the trial that it might be difficult to seat a jury at all, given the closeness of the community and prior media coverage of the case. Despite minor delays, Hill appeared pleased with the process.
“It’s actually gone smoother than I expected it would,” Hill told the jury pool Thursday, thanking them for their patience.
Hill acknowledged the closeness of the community when she asked “her favorite question:” whether anyone on the jury panel knew each other. Nearly everyone raised their hand.
Prospective juror Dave Browning, like many jurors, had to appear on three different days but wasn’t upset as he was finally released from duty Thursday afternoon.
“It was kind of long, but I understand why it had to be that way,” Browning said. “If I was the one sitting on the stand, I would want to make sure the process was as complete and fair as possible.”
Opening statements in the trial got underway before 3:30 p.m. Thursday, with proceedings expected to continue more or less on schedule through Tuesday.
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