Montana Accused Unable to Prove Innocence to Jury, Won’t Receive Wrongly Convicted Compensation

Gavel with open book and scales on table

Gavel with open book and scales on table

By Darlin Navarrete and Aria Jalan 

MISSOULA, MT – A jury in Missoula last week concluded an accused was unable to prove his innocence, and “rejected his request for $750,000 — in what will be the only test of a 2021 state law that gave an opportunity for wrongfully convicted Montanans to seek compensation,” according to Montana Public Radio.

Austin Amestoy from Montana Public Radio stated this is a unique case because it’s the only case using the now-expired Montana’s wrongful conviction compensation law.

Lee Newspaper reporter Seaborn Larson said the law began as a bipartisan effort, around 2019, and became a law in 2021, noting during this time there were discussions “around these wrongful convictions that were happening across the state.” Larson added individuals who had overturned convictions were winning big lawsuits against the counties where they were convicted.

“Lawmakers were saying that these people should be compensated for the years they lost in prison, and the state should essentially put that money up so that these cases don’t head into long, costly litigation on the taxpayer dime,” Larson wrote.

Yet, Larson reported that in spite of lawmaker support Gov. Greg Gianforte stated he would veto the bill “unless counties where these convictions had happened were on the hook.” The law terminated in 2023 and this accused was the only one to file a compensation claim.

The accused, now 39, was just 17 years old as a juvenile inmate at the Missoula County Detention Center, Larson explained. In 2002 a group of inmates blamed the accused for raping a younger boy.

Mike Dennison, a Montana reporter, began to discover inconsistencies in the case, “and the Montana Innocence Project really broke the case open again in 2010 when Robert Thomas— (the accused’s accuser) —recanted his allegations to the organization while he was in prison,” stated Larson.

The Innocence Project built a case that demonstrated that the accused was a victim of a plot by a group of boys in jail in 2002. Larson continued explaining that following this in 2016 “a judge overturned that conviction and sent the case back to district court for a new trial.”

Yet, Missoula County declined, giving another look at the accused’s allegations, and the accused has been on the journey of acquiring compensation since then, Larson reported.

The accused was among the first to seek compensation under this new legal framework, said supporters, and this made his case extremely complicated—as no legal precedent had been set before, stated Amestoy, writing the law needed the accused to prove his innocence of the 2002 conviction, which the jury felt he ultimately did not meet.

His conviction does remain overturned, and the jury decision does not change that, but because of the high standard of proof needed for the compensation package it did not happen. Amestoy reported without DNA evidence it made it nearly impossible for the defendant to get the results he wanted.

Given that his case was the only one filed under the 2021 law, its outcome might influence future legislative discussions on whether to revive or permanently discard the law, wrote Larson, who added the legislature, with a changed composition and Gov. Gianforte up for reelection, is expected to revisit the compensation package.

About The Author

Darlin Navarrete is a first-generation DACA student with a bachelor's in Political Science with a concentration in Race, Ethnicity, and Politics from UCLA. Being an honors student, Navarrete enjoys an academic challenge and aspires to attend law school and become an immigration attorney. Her passion for minority rights and representation began at a very young age where she identified injustices her family encountered and used them as outlets to expand her knowledge on immigrant rights and educate her family. Outside of academia, Navarrete loves spending time with her family, working on cars, and doing community service.

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