This article originally appeared in the August 7, 2019 issue of The Monitor Online. View clip online. Award: 3rd place best news story, Div. 1: Weekly newspapers, Montana Newspaper Association 2020 Better Newspaper Contest.
On July 24, Samantha Terrel, 29, of Great Falls stepped into the Jefferson County Fifth Judicial District Court. The Court was weighing whether to revoke and reinstate a deferred sentence for negligent homicide.
“I’m still behind Ms. Terrel but my patience grows thin,” Jefferson County Attorney Steve Haddon told the court soon after the hearing began.
It wasn’t the first time.
Terrel was originally charged with negligent homicide in 2010, after the pickup truck she was driving rolled off Delmoe Lake Road in southwest Jefferson County, according to a report in the June 15, 2011 Monitor. Derek Rozan, 17, one of five passengers in the truck, was partially ejected and killed.
Rozan’s mother, Terri Rozan, asked for leniency so Terrel could be spared prison and treated for chemical dependency. Terrel pleaded no contest on June 8, 2011 to a reduced charge of felony criminal endangerment as part of a plea agreement and was was given a six-year deferred sentence and placed under probation.
Since then, Terrel has violated the sentencing terms four times. In three of those instances, Fifth District Court prosecutors have agreed to give her another chance at treatment.
This time, Hadden told Terrel: “If we come back here again down the road, [the terms] may not be as generous.”
Invited to address the court, Terrel, fighting back tears, said “I really appreciate this last opportunity, and I understand that it is the last chance I’m going to have.”
At the time of the accident, Terrel was a 21-year-old mother of one living in Butte. She told an investigating Montana Highway Patrol officer that she had smoked marijuana prior to the crash and had been “drifting” — intentionally oversteering and speeding to cause the truck to spin — when the crash occurred.
The Monitor reported at the time that then-Jefferson County Attorney Matt Johnson said he agreed to the plea agreement out of respect for the victim’s mother, Terri Rozan, stating that the lenient sentence “gives [Terrel] a chance to do what the mother of the deceased wishes, which is that she does good with her life.”
Other factors supporting leniency included Terrel’s “attitude, her young age, her young child and her lack of criminal history,” according to a court document.
Among the terms of her sentencing, Terrel was required to report to Adult Probation and Parole; to undergo a chemical dependency evaluation and any recommended treatment; and to not drink alcohol or use dangerous drugs without a prescription.
The first time Terrel’s deferred sentence was revoked and reinstated was Oct. 24, 2012 after it was found that Terrel failed to sign up with Adult Probation and Parole. The second time was Sept. 20, 2018 following her “failure to maintain employment and for illegal drug use.” The third time was Jan. 7, 2019 following more illegal drug use and failure to complete weekly counseling sessions, among other items.
Terrel’s first deferred sentence reinstatement was for the originally imposed six years; subsequent reinstatements have been for deferred three-year sentences.
Between the first and second times her previous deferred sentence was revoked and reinstated, on Feb. 3, 2016, the conditions of Terrel’s original sentencing were amended to require that she enter and complete the Eighth Judicial District’s Adult Drug Treatment Court program in Great Falls, where she had relocated.
At the second revocation and reinstatement hearing, on Sept. 20, 2018, the conditions of her new deferred sentence required her to enter and successfully complete the Eighth Judicial District Veterans Treatment Court program.
An affidavit prepared for that hearing, dated Sept. 10, 2018 and signed by Cascade County Probation and Parole Officer Danny Williams, describes a Terrel struggling to adhere to the conditions of her sentencing.
Terrel graduated from the Eighth Judicial District’s Adult Drug Treatment Court program on Sept. 19, 2017, Williams reported, only to be admitted nine months later, on June 20, 2018, into the Montana Chemical Dependency Center Inpatient Treatment Program. Williams didn’t state what caused her admission or whether it was voluntary, but wrote that she completed that program on July 19, 2018 — and that she admitted only three days later to having started using methamphetamines again.
Terrel continued to admit to drug use, Williams wrote, yet also still sought treatment.
“[Terrel] continues to struggle with mental health issues surrounding the life that was taken by her actions … as well as the other life challenges she is currently facing,” he wrote, recommending that the Veterans Treatment Court “would give her the structure that is needed to combat the mental health and substance abuse issues she continues to struggle [with].”
A later affidavit, dated June 10, 2019 and prepared by Cascade County Probation and Parole Officer Heather Moore, states that Terrel’s struggles continued after she entered Veterans Treatment Court on Sept. 21, 2018. Subsequent ongoing drug use and other violations led to her third deferred sentence revocation and reinstatement hearing on Jan. 7, where she was ordered by the court to attend and successfully complete Passages Treatment Center before returning to the Veterans Treatment Program. She entered the former program Jan. 18 and successfully completed it April 15.
According to Moore’s affidavit, after returning to the Veterans Treatment Program Terrel continued to use drugs.
Despite these and Terrel’s prior violations, Moore wrote that “if she is found to be in violation, this Officer recommends that she be placed in a facility that can meet her level of care, such as the Elkhorn Treatment Facility in Boulder.”
A warrant for Terrel’s arrest was filed in Jefferson County District Court June 13 with bail set at $25,000. Court and jail records indicate she was arrested and placed in Jefferson County Detention Center on June 18 to await the July 24 revocation and reinstatement hearing, her fourth.
At that hearing Terrel appeared before Eight District Court Judge Greg Pinski, who assumed jurisdiction over the case in September 2017 and presided over the hearing via a video link from his courtroom in Great Falls.
With the agreement of Haddon, Terrel and her two court-provided defenders, Pinski revoked Terrel’s prior deferred three-year sentence and imposed a new one, adding the condition that she enter and successfully complete treatment at Elkhorn Treatment Center and, following that, re-enter and successfully complete the Veterans Treatment Court program.
“It is truly, Ms. Terrel, your last, last chance,” Pinski said before his ruling. “You’ve got a lot hanging over your head if you don’t do what you were supposed to do. I know the extent of the struggles that you’ve had, and that you know substance use disorder is severe. And so, you gotta make the most of the Elkhorn program. You’ve got to invest yourself in the program, so that you can complete it. Because if you don’t … there’s really nothing left for the court system to do in terms of treatment. We tried community treatment. We tried the most intensive chemical dependency treatment that the [Montana] Department of Corrections has to offer. And at that point, the only option left is the women’s prison. And you know, I don’t want to see that happen to you, but at the same time, Mr. Haddon’s right. This is the time. Either you’re going to be able to do this, or you’re not. Fair enough?”
“I understand, your honor,” Terrel responded.
Earlier in the hearing, Gabriel Valentine, one of Terrel’s two public defenders, told the court Elkhorn Treatment Center might have an opening as soon as July 29. He did not subsequently respond to multiple emails asking whether Terrel was able to enter treatment that day, but Tuesday morning a Montana Department of Corrections website indicated that Terrel was serving her probation at the center.
Valentine also did not respond to queries asking whether Terri Rozan’s input had been sought in crafting the plea agreement.
Reached by phone Tuesday morning, Rozan said that she “was not aware” of the court’s July 24 decision or of any court decision made after the initial June 8, 2011 ruling.
“This [information] is all new [to me],” she said. “It’s shocking.”
Still, Rozan said she would “continue to support anyone who has [been given] another chance.”
“I believe if it wasn’t the right thing she wouldn’t have been offered the opportunity,” she said. “What I would continue to pray for is that … she takes advantage of what people are giving her so that she can raise her own child, because prison is not conducive to child rearing. I’m happy to help Samantha anyway I can. I always have been, always will be.”
After Pinski’s ruling, and as Jefferson County Sheriff Craig Doolittle reapplied her handcuffs for the walk back to the jail where she would remain until entering treatment, Terrel turned to Haddon as he walked by.
“Thank you,” she said.
“You’re welcome,” he replied. “Good luck.”