The Montana Supreme Court denied a request to disqualify the District Court judge scheduled to preside over the trial for an Evergreen teen charged with two counts of deliberate homicide, but her attorneys have asked that the decision be reconsidered.
Prosecutors say Justine Winter, 17, intentionally drove her vehicle across the centerline of U.S. Highway 93 between Whitefish and Kalispell on March 19, 2009, colliding with a northbound vehicle and killing Erin Thompson, 35, and her son, Caden Odell, 13. Thompson was pregnant at the time.
Investigating officers concluded that Winter struck Thompson’s car in an effort to commit suicide after they discovered text messages Winter sent to her boyfriend suggesting that was her intention.
In his affidavit to the Montana Supreme Court, Winter’s attorney, David Stufft, accused District Judge Katherine Curtis of personal bias and prejudice against his client.
Five Supreme Court justices signed an order denying his request on Dec. 28, writing that Stufft’s reasons for disqualification were based on pretrial proceedings, which the justices said could be addressed through appeals once the trial is over.
However, according to a petition filed on Jan. 11 asking the justices to reconsider their decision, Stufft wrote that his reasons for requesting a new judge were not pretrial rulings, but rather on Curtis’ communication with other District Court judges.
The affidavits submitted to the Supreme Court allege that District Court Judge Stewart Stadler said one of the defense’s expert witnesses was “not credible” during the transfer hearing; that Stadler said the case is a “goat rope”; that Stadler and District Court Judge Ted Lympus commented that the case was “all smoke and mirrors” and that Curtis has a relationship with an attorney representing the victims’ family in a civil suit.
“None of these facts have anything to do with rulings made by the Honorable Judge Curtis during these proceedings,” Stufft wrote. “They have everything to do with making the inquiry and determination whether an objective, disinterested person would have had a reasonable basis for doubting the judge’s impartiality.”
Stufft also accuses the judge and the Flathead County Attorney’s Office of ex-parte communication, meaning they are communicating without all parties involved present.
“I am not sure how any person can feel comfortable being tried in the presence of the Honorable Katherine Curtis, when the County Attorney and the District Court are communicating on an exparte basis,” Stufft wrote.
Winter’s trial is scheduled to take place over two weeks, beginning Jan. 24. The January date was set after Curtis agreed to vacate a Nov. 8 trial date at the request of Winter’s attorneys, who said they needed more time to question witnesses.
Also, in an order filed Jan. 7, the Supreme Court dismissed another request from Stufft asking the high court to overrule a District Court decision that barred Winter’s parents from being present in the courtroom during trial because they are on the witness list.
The order, signed by six justices, states that according to Flathead County District Court, Winter’s attorneys did not provide any reason that her father, a trial witness, should be allowed to stay in the room through the entire trial.
Curtis also noted in her response to the Supreme Court’s request for information that Winter’s mother was not knowingly the subject of any witness exclusion ruling.
The Supreme Court order notes that the state indicated that it would withdraw its objection to Winter’s parents’ presence in the courtroom. Curtis, accordingly, vacated the order excluding them from the trial.
Winter’s attorneys previously attempted to get her trial moved out of Flathead County, citing bias in the jury pool stoked by local newspaper reports. Curtis ruled that the trial would stay in the Flathead unless an appropriate jury pool could not be found.
Winter’s pretrial hearing is scheduled for Jan. 19.
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