Exonerated Man Rejects Yellowstone County’s Settlement Offer

By Beacon Staff

BILLINGS (AP) – A man exonerated of rape charges after spending 15 years in prison has rejected an offer by Yellowstone County to settle his federal civil lawsuit.

Deputy County Attorney Kevin Gillen said Friday that Jim Bromgard’s attorneys had notified him that Bromgard was turning down the county’s settlement offer. The county is prevented by the court from disclosing the terms of the offer.

“The rejection of the offer doesn’t mean we quit talking,” Gillen said. “The county is still interested in settling. If in fact that doesn’t work, the county will be prepared to go to trial.”

Helena lawyer Ron Waterman, one of Bromgard’s attorneys, declined to comment Friday on settlement talks.

Bromgard, 39, a former Billings resident who now lives in Kalispell, is seeking $16.5 million in damages, claiming the defendants were negligent and violated his constitutional rights. Named as defendants are the county; the state; Mike Greely, former Montana attorney general; Arnold Melnikoff, former state crime lab director; and Yellowstone County Commissioners Bill Kennedy, Jim Ostlund and Jim Reno.

A jury convicted Bromgard in 1987 of raping a child in Billings, and a judge sentenced him to 40 years in prison. His conviction was upheld on appeal.

Melnikoff’s testimony on hair analysis helped convict Bromgard, but was later discredited by a panel of national forensic experts.

Bromgard served 15 years before DNA tests showed he didn’t commit the crime. He was exonerated and was released from prison in 2002. He filed the lawsuit two years later.

Bromgard claims the county violated his right to effective legal counsel and that its policy for indigent defense amounted to “deliberate indifference” to his rights. He alleges the county failed to supervise or train attorneys hired to represent poor defendants.

Bromgard was represented by John Adams, who is now deceased. Bromgard says Adams didn’t file an appeal, gave no opening statement and called few witnesses at trial.

The county argues that its only involvement in the indigent defense system at the time was to pay the appointed attorneys. It maintains that state district judges, not the county, hired and supervised the attorneys.

Since then, a lawsuit against the state by the American Civil Liberties Union and new legislation led to the creation in 2006 of the Office of the State Public Defender.

Bromgard’s attorneys have met several times in settlement talks with the county and state. Missoula attorney Mike Williams, who represents the state, could not be reached for comment.

Chief Deputy Yellowstone County Attorney Dan Schwarz said earlier the county had made Bromgard a final offer that was open until the end of the year.

Taxpayers in the county would be liable for any settlement involving the county because in 1987, the county was self-insured, Yellowstone County Attorney Dennis Paxinos has said. The county has since purchased umbrella insurance, but it doesn’t apply to earlier claims.

No trial date has been set in the three-year-old suit.