An appeals court recently vacated convictions for a Hollister man imprisoned since 2012 for molesting a 19-month-old child.
The convicted molester, Jonathan J. Fidone, has been released from prison. The San Benito County District Attorney’s Office could have pursued the same charges but instead came to a plea deal with Fidone, who pleaded no contest to a felony child abuse charge that requires him to register as a sex offender. He won’t serve any additional prison time.
District Attorney Candice Hooper was not immediately available Wednesday, but Deputy District Attorney Karen Forcum took questions by email on the matter.
“When the Court of Appeal ordered that the convictions be vacated, it also directed the trial court to bar the prosecution from using crucial evidence that had been presented in the original trial,” wrote Forcum.
“Given the required exclusion of evidence and the importance of the 290 registration, this resolution was determined to be the best outcome,” Forcum went on.
Forcum confirmed that the “case has concluded” and Fidone was released from custody Jan. 28.
Fidone, age 23 at the time of his sentencing in the spring of 2012 to a term of 23 years to life in prison, won his recent case with the Sixth District Court of Appeal. That appeals court ruled that Fidone’s locally appointed defense attorney, Arthur Cantu, had been deficient for providing an “incriminating” investigator’s report to the prosecution prior to the jury trial.
It led to Fidone’s release from Kern County Prison.
“We grant relief on defendant’s ineffective assistance of counsel claim,” read the appeals court decision. “The San Benito County Superior Court is ordered to vacate defendant’s convictions. Should the prosecution elect to retry defendant, the San Benito County Superior Court shall issue a protective order barring the prosecution from using Godoy’s report at a retrial.”
Fidone’s attorney David D. Martin out of Sacramento did not immediately return a phone call, while Cantu denied any legal impropriety by handing over his investigator’s report nearly eight years ago before the trial.
“I thought it was ethical and responsible to provide the prosecution with the reports from my investigation,” Cantu told San Benito Live on Wednesday.
After the D.A. initially filed charges in 2010, a San Benito County jury convicted Fidone of forcible sexual penetration, forcible lewd conduct on a child and aggravated sexual assault by forcible sexual penetration on a child. Judge Steven Sanders handed down the sentence.
Fidone sought what’s called habeas corpus relief on grounds that Cantu was deficient in turning over an investigator’s report to the prosecution, prior to the trial, which included a defense investigator’s report on his interview with the prosecution’s main witness, Jimy Reyna. Court documents refer to the report as highly incriminating and note how the defense investigator, David Godoy, became the primary prosecution witness at trial.
In April 2016, Fidone filed a writ of habeas corpus with the Sixth District. The appeals court heard arguments in early October, and online records say the case was completed Jan. 8.
The summary with the appeals ruling recalled how there had been 11 witnesses in the prosecution’s trial brief for the original jury trial. Reyna was listed, but Godoy was not.
The document notes how the attorney general conceded in court that Cantu was not obligated to disclose Godoy’s report to the prosecution “unless he intended to call Reyna as his own witness” but that Cantu made a “reasonable tactical decision” preparing for the prospect of Reyna being called as a witness.
The attorney general’s office in arguing against the appeal asserted the Godoy report added “very little” to the evidence against Fidone, but the Sixth District court disagreed. The appeals ruling contended “no reasonably competent attorney would have” handed over the Godoy report before the trial.
As for that original trial, the jury deliberated for less than four hours before guilty verdicts on all three counts. Afterward, Cantu filed a motion for a new trial based on alleged juror misconduct but was denied.
Court documents on the original case recall how Fidone in July 2010 had been caring for his live-in girlfriend’s 19-month-old daughter for a couple of days while his girlfriend was staying at a Santa Cruz hospital with her mother.
Reyna is the cousin of Fidone, who had been living at Reyna’s mother’s house with his girlfriend and her daughter. Court documents say Fidone was found with the child in a garage room of the home where the couple and child had been living. Those documents allege Reyna walked in on Fidone after unscrewing a locked door to confront him.
Fidone denied any wrongdoing, and claimed he had been changing the child when Reyna walked in to see him with his pants and underwear at his ankles with the child naked on the bed.
Investigators connected Fidone to the allegations through testimony of what Reyna saw along with DNA evidence. An array of pornographic materials were also found in that same room.
The court documents include further description of the allegations, but it is too graphic for publication.