A man who bolted from an officer while in custody at the Butte-Silver Bow County courthouse in April pleaded guilty to felony escape Thursday but will avoid prison time if he abides by probationary terms.
District Judge Brad Newman gave James Franklin Wasson, 29, a 10-year suspended sentence after accepting a plea agreement.
As part of the deal, prosecutors dropped six felony charges and one misdemeanor that landed Wasson in custody in the first place but were not tied to his brief escape later.
Those charges, including five counts of criminal endangerment and one for possessing dangerous drugs, were tied to a high-speed chase on April 13 that included police shooting the tires out of a car Wasson was driving.
While in custody for that incident, Wasson tried to hurt himself and was taken to the Montana State Hospital in Warm Springs for a mental health evaluation.
When he was returned, he arrived behind the courthouse in an ambulance van without hand or ankle cuffs and wearing civilian clothes like other prisoners, which is state hospital policy.
When an officer was removing a bag from the van, Wasson jumped out another door and took off running. He was spotted about 20 minutes later at an entrance to St. James Healthcare and was arrested.
Prosecutors filed a motion in June to dismiss the original seven charges, in part because some evidence items would take seven to nine months to process at the crime lab.
Deputy County Attorney Ann Shea told Newman Thursday the state wanted to resolve the case “and move on,” so those charges were being dismissed.
She supported the 10-year suspended sentence for escape and Wasson’s attorney, Colin Delli Bovi, also said it was fair. He said his client had work lined up, had children to support, and had close ties to Butte.
“We don’t want to lock James up and throw away the key,” Delli Bovi said. “James wants to be better. He obviously will be on a very tight leash.”
Newman told Wasson he would be supervised by probation officers, could have his vehicles or residence searched any time, could not drink alcohol or have illegal drugs, and was subject to drug and alcohol testing.
“I think it will give you a chance to succeed in the community,” Newman said, but he reminded him that a 10-year-sentence is still possible if he messes up.
“I’ve got a key in my pocket and can sure use it,” the judge told him.