An ex-military man will not get a new trial after being convicted of raping a young girl in 2012, a judge has ordered.
Marcial Mejia, 36, had asked Yellowstone County District Court Judge Rod Souza for a new trial, saying he wasn’t permitted to put on a complete defense due to court orders limiting testimony on the victim’s drug use, and sexual and criminal history.
Mejia, a former Army supply sergeant in Billings, denied having had sex with the victim, who was 14 at the time. Jurors convicted him after roughly 11 hours of deliberation.
Souza denied the new trial motion in an order filed Jan. 22, and he scheduled sentencing for Feb. 20.
Mejia’s attorney, Penelope Strong, argued the judge had erred in refusing to allow her to cross examine the victim, now 20, about her “habitual” meth use and psychiatric history, and in prohibiting other witnesses from testifying about her drug use.
In his order, Souza noted he allowed questioning about whether the victim was under the influence of meth at the time of the offense and whether the drug affected her long-term memory. He said he did not allow further testimony due to previous court rulings that jurors might “excessively discount” testimony from a witness they know has used illegal drugs.
The defense said the judge should have allowed into evidence the victim’s juvenile criminal history, “which directly implicate(s) her credibility,” Strong said.
But the judge said that case law allowed evidence only of criminal history that demonstrates dishonesty, which did not include the burglary and car theft convictions the victim had as a juvenile. If those crimes demonstrated dishonesty, the judge wrote, citing a Montana Supreme Court finding, then any crime would. Likewise, the judge barred testimony about a defense witness’ past conviction for bail jumping and drug distribution conviction, but allowed testimony on her obstruction conviction.
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Strong had wanted to question the victim on the number and identity of her sexual partners, saying such information could have supported the defense’s position that the victim falsely accused Mejia of raping her in order to protect one of her sexual partners.
But the judge said he properly applied the state’s Rape Shield Law, which “is designed to prevent victims from being exposed at trial to harassing or irrelevant questions concerning their past sexual behavior,” according to state statutes.
The judge did allow questioning about the victim’s assertion that Mejia gave her chlamydia, which Mejia said he does not have. And he allowed the defense to ask the victim whether she had had any sexual partners before Mejia. He did not allow questioning about the number and time frames for all other sexual partners.
The defense had also sought to question 38-year-old Daniel Hidalgo, whom they say the victim falsely accused of rape, as she did Mejia, they assert. Hidalgo would be an important witness to Mejia's case if he could be called to testify, the defense said. But the defense noted he would likely decline to do so, citing Fifth Amendment rights protecting self-incrimination.
The judge said Mejia had not met the legal requirements for such questioning, including that he had not put on solid evidence that such an accusation was made.
The defense objected to the fact that prosecutors did not correct the inconsistency between information laid out in charges and in a pretrial brief, compared to information given by the victim in her trial testimony. Prosecutors had expected her to say Mejia drove her home the night of the rape, but she testified that she ran home.
The defense highlighted those inconsistencies for the jury in opening arguments and while questioning the victim. But Souza noted that it was up to the jury to assess witness credibility.