Ethical challenge 

Ravalli County prosecutor accused of misconduct

Two men charged with crimes in unrelated cases have accused a Ravalli County prosecutor of coercing a jailed man into pleading guilty to a felony and in the second case, with lying under oath to the court.

The prosecutor, T. Geoffrey Mahar, dismisses the allegations as “crazy” and “way off the mark,” but refuses to comment further on the allegations. Mahar is running for district judge, a position newly created by the Legislature.

The two criminal defendants, through their respective attorneys, have accused Mahar of serious ethical breaches. Hamilton attorney Dave Stenerson, on behalf of his client, Robert Guest, alleges that Mahar bluffed Guest into accepting a plea agreement, despite a lack of evidence to convict him.

Attorney Bryan Tipp, on behalf of the other defendant, Richard Manny, Jr., has accused Mahar of giving false statements to the court while under oath when Mahar sought “persistent felony offender status” against Manny, which can result in a longer prison sentence.

Guest was arrested in Ravalli County last April and charged with aggravated kidnapping and two counts of assault with a weapon, all felonies. He was accused of using, or threatening to use, physical force to detain a woman with whom he was living at the time. The two assault charges stem from an allegation that Guest threatened the woman and his estranged wife with a gun.

The state’s case, says Stenerson, is weak. While unloading a .22 caliber rifle, Guest accidentally fired off two rounds inside his home. His wife, the alleged victim of the assault, was not in the home at the time. The other woman, the alleged kidnapping victim, was either outside or in another room.

Guest’s public defender was all but ineffective, charges Stenerson, having visited his client for only about 10 minutes during his 142-day incarceration. Nor did his previous attorney contact any witnesses or the alleged victims to either corroborate or disprove statements given to the investigating deputy.

While Guest was still in the Ravalli County Jail, his estranged wife, Blair Guest, visited Mahar to find out when her husband might be released. According to Stenerson’s charge of prosecutorial misconduct included in a court motion, Mahar “told Ms. Guest that the charge of assault against her would have to be dismissed because there was no evidence to support a conviction, since she was not present and had not been threatened with a weapon by her estranged husband. Mr. Mahar also related to Ms. Guest that the kidnaping [sic] charge could not be proved because there was insufficient evidence to show that Guest restrained [the alleged kidnap victim] or kept her from leaving. He advised Ms. Guest, however, that he would use the kidnaping [sic] charge and the assault charge against her to ‘bluff’ Guest into accepting a plea agreement even though there was not enough evidence to convict on those charges. Mr. Mahar then asked Ms. Guest not to tell anyone about what he had told her.”

Mahar and Guest’s public defender then went together to see Guest while he was still incarcerated. According to Stenerson’s account, Mahar told Guest that he could prove kidnapping and that Guest “would be looking at 50 years in prison.” Such a bluff is a violation of the Montana Rules of Professional Conduct, which preclude a prosecutor from prosecuting if he knows the evidence is not supported by probable cause.

With a trial date looming, Guest was convinced by his public defender and Mahar to plead guilty to one felony count of assault in exchange for dismissal of the other two felonies. Stenerson maintains that his client accepted the plea bargain, despite the fact that the prosecution could not find the alleged kidnapping victim for trial and that Mrs. Guest was not present at the scene and had never been threatened by her estranged husband.

Guest ultimately fired his public defender and retained Stenerson privately. Shortly before his sentencing on the assault charge, Blair Guest informed Stenerson that the prosecutor had tried to coerce her husband into a plea bargain. Stenerson was shocked at what she had to say, and immediately filed a motion to withdraw Guest’s guilty plea.

Blair Guest—still estranged from her husband—says that she never informed her husband’s previous attorney about her conversation with Mahar because she believed coercion was “standard operating procedure” among police and prosecutors. “I thought that was normal, ordinary procedure,” she says. When she found out otherwise, she says, “I was blown away.”

“He was absolutely coerced into signing a plea agreement,” she says. “They dangled enough carrots to get him to sign it.” Mahar calls the prosecutorial conduct charge “crazy,” noting that the court had previously found enough probable cause to allow the state to file the original three felonies. He met with Guest in jail because the court mandated such a meeting to discuss alternatives to a trial. “At no time,” he states in his brief to the court, “did the prosecutor state he would pursue or obtain a conviction on a charge not supported by probable cause.”

The matter has not yet been resolved by the court.

In the second case, criminal defendant Richard Manny claims that Mahar lied under oath to the judge, claiming that he had sought persistent felony offender status against Manny in a timely fashion as required by state law. (A criminal defendant tagged as a persistent felony offender typically nets more prison time.) Mahar argued that he had not sought persistent felony offender status against Manny in a timely fashion because he was unaware that Manny had been previously convicted of a felony in Idaho.

But Manny, originally charged with assault, intimidation and criminal mischief, was able to show through dated court documents that Mahar was, in fact, aware of Manny’s previous conviction more than two months before he filed notice with the court that he would seek persistent felony offender status. That status could have added a maximum of 100 years onto Manny’s sentence, which is significant in this case since the charges against him were ultimately reduced to misdemeanors.

Mahar maintains that he did not lie when he told the court under oath that he was unaware of Manny’s previous conviction, despite his own admission that he was aware of Manny’s prior felony history. The District Court found in Manny’s favor and quashed the persistent felony offender status request on Feb. 5.

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