Judge rejects defense challenge to plea deal

rahumada@modbee.comJuly 18, 2013 

A judge Wednesday rejected a defense challenge to a plea deal that requires a former Modesto teacher to register as a sex offender for the rest of his life.

Defendant James Hooker, 43, on Monday pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor charge of having oral sex with a 17-year-old girl 15 years ago.

Defense attorney Mary Lynn Belsher filed a motion challenging the agreement, which was reached Monday. She argued that her client was under a tremendous amount of pressure when they learned that the sex offender registration requirement would make a plea deal possible.

“Mr. Hooker felt like he had no choice,” Belsher told the judge. “He agreed because he doesn’t want to go to jail.”

The last-minute plea deal avoided a trial scheduled to start with jury selection Monday.

Deputy District Attorney Beth O’Hara Owen argued that the sex offender registration was the most important part of the deal for the prosecution because it will “keep Mr. Hooker from ever teaching in a classroom.”

Stanislaus County Superior Court Judge Thomas Zeff said in court that he received the defense motion shortly before noon, “and I’m a little confused by it.” Mostly, he said, because he listed every detail of the agreed-upon sentence during Monday’s hearing.

Hooker told the judge Monday that he understood the sentence and agreed to it in exchange for a lesser charge. The defendant was sentenced to a suspended jail term of 180 days and four years of probation. If he violates his probation, the judge can order him to serve up to 180 days in jail.

Zeff has ordered Hooker not to initiate contact or communication with females ages 12 to 18 unless another adult is present. The defendant’s daughters are excluded from the court order.

The judge also ordered Hooker to stay away from the victim, 32-year-old Michelle Miller. Gloria Allred, Miller’s attorney, called the defense challenge a desperate, sad and pathetic effort.

Zeff told Belsher there’s no reason to believe Hooker was under any pressure to make the agreement Monday. He said there was no basis to challenge a portion of a plea deal that the defendant and his attorney agreed to.

The judge offered Hooker a chance to withdraw his no-contest plea or be sentenced according to the agreement. The defendant declined to withdraw his plea, and the judge sentenced him.

Hooker gained national notoriety after he confirmed to The Bee last year that he had an affair with another high school student, 18-year-old Jordan Powers.

Stemming from his illicit 1998 relationship with Miller, prosecutors initially charged Hooker with one felony count of committing oral copulation with a person younger than 18. Had he been convicted of the felony, he would have faced a maximum sentence of three years in prison.

Hooker recently admitted to performing oral sex on Miller, but he maintained he did not know she was underage. The stipulation in court narrowed the focus of the trial and shortened the witness list. The trial was estimated to last a week and a half.

Tammie Powers said her daughter continues to live with Hooker, but she maintains a good relationship with Jordan.

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