Kalispell Man, Wrongly Jailed for 15 Years, Settles for $3.5 Million

By Beacon Staff

BILLINGS (AP) – A man exonerated of a rape charge after spending more than 15 years in prison reached a $3.5 million settlement with the state on Friday.

Jim Bromgard, a former Billings resident who now lives in Kalispell, was convicted in 1987 of raping a child in Billings, and a judge sentenced him to 40 years in prison. He served 15 years before DNA tests showed he didn’t commit the crime. He was exonerated and released from prison in 2002.

The DNA testing was conducted by the Innocence Project, a New York-based advocacy group that works to exonerate wrongfully convicted criminal defendants.

“This has been a long journey for Jimmy that started in 1987 with a wrongful conviction,” said Ron Waterman, Bromgard’s attorney. “There’s no amount money that will compensate him for 15½ years in prison. This will start to heal the wounds.”

Bromgard, 39, sought $16.5 million when he sued in 2004, naming the state; Mike Greely, former attorney general; Arnold Melnikoff, former state crime lab director; Yellowstone County, and Commissioners Jim Reno, Bill Kennedy and John Ostlund.

Bromgard alleged that the state and Melnikoff were negligent. Melnikoff’s testimony at trial on hair comparisons helped convict Bromgard, but his work was later discredited by national forensic experts.

Peter Neufeld, an attorney with the Innocence Project, who represents Bromgard, said the settlement was achieved “in response to the disgraceful role” Melnikoff played in providing “false testimony” to convict an innocent man.

Melnikoff worked for the Department of Justice for about 19 years before leaving Montana in 1989 to work at the Washington State Patrol crime lab. He was fired in 2004, based in part on his work in Montana.

“I urge the attorney general to appoint an independent examiner to conduct DNA testing on the hairs in every criminal case in which Melnikoff declared a match,” Bromgard said in a statement released by his attorneys. “DNA and the truth set me free. The state of Montana should not be allowed to ignore its duty to seek the truth in all of these other criminal cases.”

Missoula attorney Mike Williams, who represented the state, said he couldn’t comment on the settlement. Lynn Solomon, with the state Justice Department, said Attorney General Mike McGrath wouldn’t comment because the case with the county is still pending.

In that case, Bromgard says 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.

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.

Bromgard rejected a settlement offer by the county in December. Terms of the proposal weren’t released.