Johnathon Miller, 29, was ordered by Seventh District Court Judge Lyle Anderson to serve two consecutive terms of between one and 15 years each after accepting a plea bargain in the case. He was also sentenced consecutively to zero to five years on a probation violation stemming from a previous felony case involving the discharge of a firearm. The Utah Board of Pardons and Parole will ultimately determine the amount of time Miller spends in prison.
Miller pleaded guilty to the two second-degree felony charges just 30 minutes prior to the start of his trial. In making the deal, Grand County Attorney Andrew Fitzgerald dropped six other charges against Miller, including rape and sodomy of a child. According to Fitzgerald, a jury was summoned and he was prepared to begin trial when the agreement was struck with Miller’s public defender, Don Torgerson.
The deal Fitzgerald and the defense agreed to would have run Miller’s sentences concurrently. Judge Anderson declined to accept that agreement, however, and in issuing his sentence handed down consecutive terms.
Under Utah law, judges are not obligated to follow a plea agreement and may sentence a defendant as they see fit under state guidelines, which is what Judge Anderson did in Miller’s case.
“Normally, 14 days before trial, the judge cuts us off from making any plea bargains,” Fitzgerald said. “The rationale in that is that once you have brought in a lot of people to seat a prospective jury, you’ve wasted a lot of peoples’ time and … the courts pay about $18 a day, per person, so it can add up. At the last minute, the defendant decided to accept our offer, which was one we had extended during virtually the entire case … the judge didn’t go with our recommendation because he decided the facts of the case and the seriousness of the charges warranted consecutive sentences.”
Fitzgerald added that, out of deep concern for the victim in the case, he asked Judge Anderson to allow the plea bargain to go forward.
“We left that door open for [Miller] to plead to this because we had a child witness,” Fitzgerald said. “The judge allowed his rules to be relaxed because the therapist in the case came back to us saying that having her testify would be difficult for her and likely set her back in the therapy [the child] is receiving … it’s one of those situations where it made sense not to put the child witness on the stand.”
Fitzgerald said the case, which was first brought to the attention of authorities in March by staff at the Grand County School District, was delayed in its reporting and no forensic evidence of a rape or abuse was revealed. That, he said, also made an impact on his decision to seek acceptance of a late plea agreement from Judge Anderson.
“There was no physical evidence, so in this case it came down to a 9-year-old child versus the defendant,” Fitzgerald said. “A lot can happen in court when it comes to a child victim and there is a lot of risk when it’s a ‘he said, she said’ type of situation. With all of that considered, and no forensic evidence, we were fortunate to get the change of plea from the judge rather than put this child through all of that.”
While the specific details of the allegations against Miller have not been made public, Fitzgerald said the abuse occurred over of period of time when the victim was five to six years old.
Grand County teacher, counselor broke the case
It was the diligent work of a teacher and counselor from Grand County School District that broke the criminal case against Johnathon Miller, according to Grand County Attorney Andrew Fitzgerald. That teacher, Fitzgerald said, used the “Good Touch and Bad Touch” program training in her classroom at Helen M. Knight Elementary School when the child, who was an 8-year-old at the time, reported the crimes.
“The testimony we would have heard, had this case gone to trial, was that the school district used the Good Touch and Bad Touch training when this child spoke up,” Fitzgerald said. “The reason we have a program like this is because of the actions of the Grand County Children’s Justice Center. It’s a program they started here that goes into the schools and tells about what are ‘good’ touches and ‘bad’ touches. Kids are told that it’s important to tell your teachers about these things.”
According to Fitzgerald, the victim reported the “bad” touch just one day after hearing about the program in the classroom. At that point a counselor was brought in and it was reported to law enforcement.
Having the Good Touch and Bad Touch program in Grand County schools is an important factor, Fitzgerald added, in helping to identify predators and keep children safe in the community.
“I think it’s great that we have this,” Fitzgerald said. “This shows that the program is effective and empowers them to go to people they can trust and say something bad happened to them.”
Fitzgerald added that in this case Miller, who was dating the young victim’s mother, had allegedly asked the child to “keep it a secret” and that he “would go to jail” if anyone found out.
If you know of a victim of child sexual abuse, contact the Moab Police Department at 435-259-8938, the Grand County Sheriff’s Office at 435-259-8115, or call the Division of Child and Family Services at 800-678-9399.