HELENA, Montana — The Montana Supreme Court has reversed the 2012 conviction of a Kalispell man found guilty of raping an 11-year-old girl and ordered a new trial.
The justices ruled Wednesday that prosecutors went too far in the trial against Jason Dean Franks by referencing a separate molestation charge against Franks to create the impression that he was a habitual abuser of children.
The opinion by Chief Justice Mike McGrath said District Judge Stewart Stadler should have ruled that introducing the separate molestation case as evidence denied Franks a fair and impartial trial.
The girl told her father in 2010 that Franks, his former roommate, raped her four years earlier. The girl told police she came forward after all that time after reading a newspaper story in which Franks was accused of molesting a 5-year-old boy and she wanted to help in that case.
Franks, who was previously convicted of sexual assault in 1992, was acquitted in the molestation case involving the 5-year-old. He was charged in 2011 with sexual intercourse without consent and sexual assault in the case of the 11-year-old girl.
Stadler ruled that prosecutors could reference the other charge in trial only as the reason for the girl waiting to make her allegations. Prosecutors did abide by those limitations, however, McGrath wrote.
A prosecutor said in his opening statement at the trial that Franks was "accused of raping a little boy." After Franks testified that he had been acquitted of those charges, the prosecutor asked him if he heard his attorney say "that not guilty doesn't mean innocent."
That went beyond the limitations of how that case could be referenced, when its highly inflammatory nature required the court and prosecutors to tread with caution, McGrath wrote in his opinion.
"The State's use of the evidence aroused the jury's hostility toward Franks, resulting in unfair prejudice," McGrath wrote.
The trial judge instructed the jury not to consider testimony about the molestation case other than to explain the girl's reason for coming forward, but that was not enough to protect the defendant from the state's "repeated insinuations," the justice wrote.