WILLISTON, N.D. — Prosecutors in Williston have dropped a case against a man convicted of sexually abusing a 12-year-old girl after the state’s top court ruled parts of his trial were wrongfully closed to the public.
Williams County District Judge Benjamin Johnson signed on Friday, April 23, a request by the State’s Attorney Office to dismiss the Class AA felony charge of continuous sexual child abuse against Juan Antonio Martinez, 44, of Williston.
The move comes almost a month after the North Dakota Supreme Court found the lower court violated Martinez's Sixth Amendment right to a public trial.
The family of the child expressed concerns about going through another trial, according to a motion filed by Assistant State’s Attorney Nathan Madden that explained his decision to drop the case. Those concerns included the potential financial impact of another trial and the trauma that would be inflicted upon the family once again.
“In subsequent communications, it appears that the victim will not be available to testify,” the motion said, adding the victim did not wish to go through a second trial.
Martinez was being held at the North Dakota State Penitentiary in Bismarck and no longer appears in the state's Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation list of inmates at the facility.
Martinez was charged with sexually abusing a 12-year-old girl multiple times between July 1, 2017, and Oct. 31, 2017.
Prosecutors asked Johnson to close the courtroom so the victim could testify without her identity or details of the sexual acts being revealed to the public. They also asked for a counselor's testimony to be exempt from public viewing, saying her ability to work with the child would be "adversely affected" if she got on the stand in a setting open to news media.
The counselor's testimony was expected to involve confidential information about the child, which could make it impossible for her to work with children in the future, prosecutors said.
The Williston Herald objected to closed hearings. The court allowed one media member to view that testimony but prohibited them from identifying the girl. That would "promote the public policy of open courtrooms while advancing the victim’s privacy," according to court filings.
A jury found Martinez guilty on Feb. 19, 2019. He faced life in prison but was sentenced to 20 years behind bars.
The defense argued the lower court did not conduct an appropriate analysis that would allow it to determine if the trial could be closed to the public, according to court filings.
The Supreme Court agreed in a 4-1 ruling, saying closing court proceedings should happen in rare cases.
“District courts should not close trials as a matter of convenience, to increase judicial efficiency, or simply because the parties both prefer to exclude the public,” Justice Jerod Tufte said in the opinion.
Justice Lisa Fair McEvers, dissented to the majority opinion, saying Martinez consented to the closures. It was the press that objected, a fact also noted by Justice Gerald VandeWalle. He said he concurred with the result of the findings but dissented with the reasoning behind Tufte’s opinion.
“Martinez did not argue (that) he did not waive his right to a public trial,” McEvers wrote. “Rather, he argued, based on our precedent, that the closure was a structural error so intrinsically harmful as to require automatic reversal regardless of whether his right was forfeited or waived.”
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated Martinez's age. He is 44.