Judge limits number of character witnesses in UM rape trial

2013-02-07T08:00:00Z 2014-08-25T07:51:22Z Judge limits number of character witnesses in UM rape trialBy GWEN FLORIO Missoulian The Billings Gazette
February 07, 2013 8:00 am  • 

MISSOULA — Former University of Montana Grizzlies quarterback Jordan Johnson can call only five character witnesses during his trial that starts Friday, and none can testify as to whether they believe he’s capable of committing the rape of which he’s accused.

Johnson’s defense team wanted 25 people to present evidence of his good character.

But Missoula County District Court Judge Karen Townsend ruled this week that the number “is excessive, and that testimony from so many would amount to a ‘waste of time.’ ”

Johnson is accused of raping a fellow UM student as the two watched a movie at her home on Feb. 4, 2012.

“In this case,” Townsend wrote, “because of the nature of the charge and the defense, certainly it would be proper for the defendant’s good character witnesses to offer testimony about his truthfulness, his general morality, the way he treats women, his peacefulness, or the fact that he is thought of as a ‘gentleman.’ ”

However, testimony about other traits – whether he’s a hard worker, a churchgoer, capable athlete and the like – is not pertinent to the charge, Townsend ordered.

She cited a 1998 case, State v. Smith, in writing that “it would be improper for any of these witnesses to testify that, in their opinion, he was ‘incapable of committing this crime.’ ” That’s because such an assessment isn’t a pertinent character trait but an opinion on whether the defendant is guilty, she wrote, quoting the earlier case.

In a separate order, Townsend denied a motion by Johnson’s defense team, David Paoli and Kirsten Pabst, to prohibit use of the terms “victim” and “defendant” during the trial.

“The court does not find that these labels suggest that the presumption of innocence does not attach to the defendant,” she wrote. Besides, both the Legislature and Montana Supreme Court regularly use the term “victim,” she wrote.

Johnson’s trial begins in the unusual location of the Holiday Inn Downtown, selected because no courtroom in Missoula was large enough to accommodate the 400 people originally called for the jury pool.

As of Wednesday afternoon, some 220 of those had been excused, according to the Missoula County court clerk’s office. The trial is expected to last about 11 days.

Johnson was suspended from the team after he was charged in July with sexual intercourse without consent. Conviction on that charge carries a maximum possible sentence of 100 years or life in prison, and a $50,000 fine.

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