Prosecutors seeking to have children testify against state senator in assault case

2014-08-06T11:02:00Z 2014-08-08T06:58:10Z Prosecutors seeking to have children testify against state senator in assault caseBy EDDIE GREGG The Billings Gazette

RED LODGE — Prosecutors are seeking to have three children testify against their father, a state senator charged with assaulting his 4-year-old daughter, his estranged wife and her boyfriend in February.

Jason Sheller Priest, R-Red Lodge, has pleaded not guilty to felony assault on a minor and misdemeanor counts of assault, partner or family member assault and resisting arrest in connection to the Feb. 1. incident outside his home in Red Lodge.

Prosecutors say Priest, 46, threw his 4-year-old daughter through a doorway, tried to push his wife down some stairs, tackled her boyfriend and struggled with a police officer who intervened.

Priest’s wife’s boyfriend, Jon Trapp — who suffered scrapes and a broken rib — called police during the incident, a recording of which was released in March.

The case was originally scheduled to go before a jury on Tuesday, but Priest’s trial has been rescheduled to Jan. 12, according to court records.

In June, Assistant Attorneys General Mary Cochenour and Joel Thompson filed motions seeking to have Priest’s children, ages 4, 8 and 9, testify against him.

The youngest of the children is a victim — she suffered a 1-inch bump on her head when Priest allegedly picked her up and threw her — and all three children are witnesses to the events of Feb. 1, according to prosecutors.

Fearing the children will suffer “substantial emotional trauma from testifying in the presence” of Priest, prosecutors are seeking to have them testify by live video feed from outside of the courtroom, court records say.

If the children are unable or refuse to testify, the prosecutors are seeking to introduce hearsay from them at trial.

A hearing on those and other motions in the case is scheduled for Dec. 15 before presiding judge Blair Jones, of the 22nd Judicial District.

Vernon E. Woodward, Priest’s attorney, has said in court records that the case will probably not be resolved without a trial. Woodward and prosecutors have until Sept. 30. to hold a conference on a possible resolution, an order filed Monday states.

Priest remains free from jail on a posted $1,500 bond on several conditions, including that he not leave the state without permission of the court. He was granted permission to travel to Denver and San Diego, Calif., on personal business from May 8 until Aug. 8, court records say.

The state’s witness list so far has more than 15 people, including Kelsen Young, an expert witness and executive director of the Montana Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, and Sen. Ed Buttrey, R-Great Falls.

Priest was elected in 2010 to a four-year term. He did not file for re-election, according to Secretary of State records.

According to the state Legislative Services office, Priest has not given notice of resignation, meaning he is still in office and head of the Senate Public Health, Welfare and Safety Committee.

Copyright 2014 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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