Once sentenced to 23 years in prison for molesting a 19-month-old girl, Hollister resident Jonathan Fidone won an appeal of his 2012 conviction on three felonies and was released from custody last week.
In a deal with local prosecutors following the appeals court’s decision, Fidone pleaded guilty to a single count of felony child abuse in relation to the original offense. A San Benito County Superior Court judge determined Fidone, 29, had already served adequate prison time for the crime, and ordered him to register as a sex offender for the rest of his life. Fidone was released from custody Jan. 28.
He registered as a sex offender with the San Benito County Sheriff’s Office Feb. 5, according to sheriff’s Capt. Eric Taylor.
In a Nov. 6, 2018 opinion, the Sixth District Court of Appeal found that Fidone’s appointed attorney in Fidone’s 2012 criminal trial, Arthur Cantu, was “prejudicially deficient” when he turned over a “highly incriminating” report from Cantu’s investigator to prosecutors with the San Benito County District Attorney’s Office. The report included a detailed description of an interview with Fidone’s cousin Jimy Reyna, a key witness to Fidone’s abuse of the child victim.
The child was the daughter of a woman Fidone was dating at the time, according to court files. The couple and child were living with Reyna, who is Fidone’s cousin, and Reyna’s mother in Hollister at the time of the incident.
The report from Cantu’s investigator, David Godoy, provided significantly more detail about what Reyna said he saw the day of the crime—July 17, 2010—than the witness offered in sworn testimony during the trial, the Sixth District opinion continues. Cantu was not obligated to turn over Godoy’s report to prosecutors, and in doing so likely led the jury to find Fidone guilty of three felony counts: sexual penetration by a foreign object, forcible lewd act upon a child and aggravated assault of a child. Judge Steven Sanders subsequently sentenced Fidone to 23 years to life in prison in 2012.
The appeals court in November thus ordered that conviction to be vacated, and prohibited the prosecution’s use of Godoy’s original report as evidence against Fidone in any future re-trial.
“Cantu’s deficiency…was so serious that it undermines our confidence in the outcome of the trial,” reads the Sixth District Appeals Court’s opinion. “By deficiently disclosing to the prosecution highly incriminating evidence, Cantu failed to perform competently and prejudiced his client. Defendant is entitled to a new trial.”
The state attorney general’s office argued against Fidone’s appeal, but was unable to convince the Sixth District to uphold the original conviction.
District Attorney Candice Hooper’s office declined to bring Fidone’s case to trial again. In January, Fidone was transported back to San Benito County Jail from Kern Valley State Prison. He accepted the deal with prosecutors at a Jan. 28 hearing at the local courthouse. Also at that hearing, the local judge vacated Fidone’s original conviction, as directed by the Sixth District.
“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,” San Benito County Deputy DA Karen Forcum said Feb. 1 in a written response to questions. “Given the required exclusion of evidence and the importance of the 290 (sex offender) registration, this resolution was determined to be the best outcome.”
Forcum added, “The case has concluded.”
Reyna was a key witness during Fidone’s 2012 trial. Fidone, his girlfriend and the woman’s 19-month-old daughter were living with Reyna on Versailles Drive. Fidone arrived home that day with the baby, but the girl’s mother was not with them. Reyna was at home with his own children, according to a highly graphic description of Reyna’s statements and testimony in the Sixth District’s Nov. 6 opinion.
At one point, Fidone carried the baby into the home’s garage, which had been converted into a living space where the couple and baby lived, and closed the door behind him, according to the court file. A few minutes later, Reyna knocked on the garage door, but Fidone did not respond. Reyna then went outside to a window to attempt to see inside the garage. From outside the window, he saw the child on the bed, being moved in a suspicious, potentially harmful manner but could not see Fidone. He could hear the child screaming, and saw an adult hand—presumably Fidone’s—reach up to cover the girl’s mouth.
Reyna then went back around to the door, which was locked, and opened it with a screwdriver, reads the appeals court’s account of the trial. He saw Fidone standing in the corner of the room, wearing a shirt with his pant around his ankles. He was holding a towel in front of him to cover himself up. The unclothed child was still on the bed when Reyna entered the room. Reyna also saw pornographic magazines open in the room, and a pornographic movie playing on the television.
Fidone told Reyna at this point that he was “changing the baby,” reads the appeals court document. Fidone denied harming the child.
Evidence at the 2012 trial included reports and testimony from medical experts who examined the child after the reported abuse, in addition to testimony from Godoy, Reyna, police investigators and forensic science technicians. Prosecutors presented DNA evidence that allegedly connected Fidone to the reported abuse. The jury deliberated for three hours before returning the guilty verdict.
Cantu appealed the verdict on Fidone’s behalf shortly thereafter on the grounds of juror misconduct. However, the judge denied that appeal.
Fidone then sought habeus corpus relief with the appeals court, leading to the recent decision. His attorney in the appeals proceedings is David D. Martin, who did not return a phone call.
Cantu also did not return a phone call requesting comment. The appeals court opinion said Cantu’s decision to turn over Godoy’s report “violated Cantu’s duty of loyalty to his client.”
“Cantu’s decision to list Reyna as a defense witness and to disclose Godoy’s report to the prosecution was not a reasonable strategic decision; it was plain incompetence,” the Sixth District opinion states.