Judge rejects plea deal in Aspen yoga case
ASPEN – A judge Wednesday shot down a plea agreement for an Aspen yoga instructor accused of having unlawful sexual contact with two of his clients.
Steven Jon Roger, 48, was poised to plead no contest to two misdemeanor charges and avoid going to a jury trial next week in Pitkin County Court.
But Judge Erin Fernandez-Ely said she could not accept the plea deal that stipulated Roger get a two-year deferred judgment, and spend two years on unsupervised probation and the state’s sex offender registry. The deal had been reached between prosecutor Richard Nedlin and Tamas Viski-Hanka, Roger’s Denver-based attorney.
Now the trial is on hold so that Viski-Hanka can entertain the judge’s recommendation that Roger undergo a pre-sentence investigation and a psycho-sexual evaluation. The judge also said she was open to other ideas to settle the case, and added she wants to see the alleged victims feel justice has been served with whatever disposition is reached, provided the case settles.
Fernandez-Ely was partially persuaded to reject the plea agreement after she received a letter Monday from one of the alleged victims, who wants Roger registered on the sex offender list for the rest of his life. The judge read aloud the letter from the alleged victim, who wrote that she “will be haunted by [Roger’s] memories for years to come.”
“The issue is I don’t want to condone, or be perceived to be of condoning, a very serious allegation,” the judge said.
Even so, Fernandez-Ely said: “This plea does recognize and validate [one of the victim’s] allegations; however, I personally feel that without this [psycho-sexual] evaluation or future counseling, that I haven’t done my job in this case.”
With that, Viski-Hanka said a trial is not off the table, adding Roger will “flat-out deny” having unlawful sexual contact with two clients at the yoga studio O2 Aspen. Prosecutors contend Roger had unlawful contact with one student on March 12, 2008; the other incident allegedly occurred a month later on April 12, 2008.
Viski-Hanka said the proposed plea agreement was punishment enough for Roger.
“Mr. Roger having to be on the sex registry for two years is not without stigma,” he told the judge.
Viski-Hanka noted that Roger will have a difficult time finding a job because of his presence on the registry, especially in the current economy.
Viski-Hanka lobbied that the press be issued a gag order to not report on the case because it will be difficult to seat an impartial jury, and contended that Roger has gotten a bad rap ever since his arrest last year. The judge rejected banning the media from court proceedings.
Calling the case against Roger one of “he-said, she said,” Viski-Hanka argued that “in today’s society, ‘she said’ has a lot more weight than ‘he said’ … Society says, ‘Why would she say this if he didn’t do it?'”
He added: “The presumption of innocence is thrown out the window.”
Viski-Hanka added that Roger has a solid defense to the allegations against him. He suggested that the alleged victims lack credibility, and Roger had only sought the plea agreement so that he could move on with his life.
Roger was originally charged in April with two felony charges of sexual assault. But Senior District Judge James Edwin Rutland dismissed those counts in May, ruling there was insufficient evidence for Roger to face the charges. The judge found that intrusion did not occur.
“More than a touching is required … to establish an intrusion” in violation of state law, the judge wrote.
And last month, Nedlin dismissed four of the six misdemeanor charges against Roger. The next hearing in the case is scheduled March 9.
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