A Sanders County judge has overturned the conviction of a Trout Creek man serving life in prison for the 1997 murder of his best friend, setting the stage for a new trial and the opportunity for Richard Raugust to prove he’s innocent.
In a Nov. 16 order, Sanders County District Judge James Wheelis granted Raugust’s petition for post-conviction relief, ruling that evidence withheld in the case constituted a violation of due process, supported the defendant’s alibi and warranted a new trial.
“The court concludes that reversing petitioner’s conviction and granting him a new trial is the only remedy for the violation of his rights,” Wheelis wrote.
Since the morning of his arrest, Raugust, 49, has insisted that he did not commit the murder of Joe Tash, whose body was discovered July 24, 1997, inside a camper trailer near Trout Creek. A Sanders County jury handed down a guilty verdict in March 1998 after sitting deadlocked for 10 hours.
In 2012, the Montana Innocence Project appealed Raugust’s conviction, saying that new evidence implicates another killer, and that if Raugust were granted a new trial, a jury would agree.
The new evidence challenges key testimony provided by the state’s sole eyewitness, a man the Montana Innocence Project asserts is the true killer, and claims that the testimony of a sheriff’s deputy would have supported Raugust’s alibi but was never divulged prior to trial.
According to Wheelis’ order, the deputy’s observations “put the entire case against [Raugust] in such a different light as to undermine confidence in the verdict at the underlying trial.”
Brett Schandelson, an attorney representing Raugust in his quest for relief, said the order was a triumph of justice.
“Having just received the order ourselves, we are still digesting it but we are very happy,” Schandelson said. “We think it clearly supports Richard Raugust’s alibi and completely changes the narrative of what happened in 1997.”
Schandelson said the defense team has requested a bond hearing in the case, and will await a motion from the state as it decides whether to appeal the judge’s order.
With the conviction overturned, Schandelson will argue that Raugust is eligible for release on bail.
“We certainly hope that he would be released under some conditions while he awaits his new trial,” Schandelson said.