WEST FARGO — A West Fargo man who was scheduled to be sentenced on Thursday, Dec. 26, on a charge that he sexually abused a minor for nearly six years may be headed to trial.
Valentin Jose Valenzuela was 52 when he was charged in October 2018 in Cass County District Court with one count of continuous sexual abuse of a minor, a Class AA felony, a charge that carries a possible maximum sentence of life in prison.
Court documents accuse Valenzuela of sexual abuse of a minor under the age of 15, abuse that allegedly took place over a number of years beginning in about 2012.
Valenzuela pleaded guilty to the charge on Oct. 7 and was scheduled to be sentenced on Thursday by Judge Frank Racek.
Instead, at Thursday's hearing Valenzuela asked that he be allowed to withdraw his guilty plea and be given a new public defender because he believed his lawyer, long-time public defender Steven Mottinger, was not willing to fight for him.
"This is my life and I have to fight for it," Valenzuela told Racek, adding that conversations he has had with Mottinger left him convinced his lawyer wasn't on his side.
Mottinger told the court he can be "a little more straightforward" than he needed to be when counseling clients regarding possible trial outcomes, adding: "Maybe I shouldn't give people my opinion."
He said Valenzuela suspects him of dishonesty relating to a similar court case filed against Valenzuela in Arizona. Mottinger said he became aware of the filing through the pre-sentence investigation phase of the Cass County case.
Prosecutor Tanya Johnson Martinez told the court that what Mottinger said regarding the Arizona case was accurate. She also said the joint sentencing recommendation the state and Mottinger reached in the Cass County case — 12.5 years — was one of the lightest she could recall involving the type of charge Valenzuela faces.
Racek told Valenzuela that Mottinger is one of the most experienced and capable criminal defense attorneys in the state.
He noted that Valenzuela rejected another public defender prior to Mottinger being assigned his case, and Racek said any future attorneys assigned the case would likely run into similar issues.
Racek then presented Valenzuela with three options: move forward with sentencing with Mottinger as his attorney, take the case to trial with Mottinger as his attorney or defend himself as his own attorney.
Valenzuela vacillated, telling the court that acting as his own attorney was out of the question.
Ultimately, the judge said it was "probably best" to go to trial, which he said would be set for sometime in February.
Johnson Martinez told the court the state's settlement offer would remain good until Jan. 4 in order to give the defense additional time to consider it.