The state of Montana has dropped its bid challenging a judge’s order that overturned the deliberate homicide conviction and life sentence of Richard Raugust, a Trout Creek man who was incarcerated for 18 years for the murder of his best friend.
Raugust was released from prison last December following a decision by Sanders County District Judge James Wheelis, who ruled 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 in his order.
Since the morning of his arrest, Raugust, 49, has insisted that he did not murder his longtime friend Joe Tash, whose body was discovered July 24, 1997, inside a camper trailer near Trout Creek. Despite his pleas of innocence, 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.
And while the state of Montana appealed the judge’s decision to the Montana Supreme Court, the Montana Attorney General’s Office filed a motion last week to dismiss the appeal. The Montana Supreme Court accepted the motion Aug. 26.
Now, Sanders County Attorney Robert Zimmerman must decide whether to file a motion to dismiss the charges, or retry the deliberate homicide case before a jury.
Zimmerman was not immediately available for comment, and a status hearing in the case has not yet been scheduled.
Raugust’s legal team was pleased that the state decided not to pursue the appeal, and said they look forward to proving Raugust’s innocence.
“I, along with the Montana Innocence Project, am very pleased the state has chosen to no longer pursue their appeal of Judge Wheelis’ order overturning Richard’s conviction and granting him a new trial,” Missoula defense attorney Brett Schandelson said. “Judge Wheelis’ order is legally sound and unlikely to be overturned, and it now appears the state has reached the same conclusion. We now look forward to defending Richard on the merits in a new trial.”
Schandelson said a new trial would give Raugust the opportunity to present newly discovered evidence to support his alibi that he was not present the night of the murder.
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.”
Raugust has been living and working in Missoula since Dec. 4, when Wheelis released him on his own recognizance pending a new trial.
“I was hypothetically doomed to make the best of a bad situation, perhaps for the rest of my life,” Raugust said at the time of his release. “I will finally get to clear my name and look forward to getting closure for my best friend Joe. Our families, friends and I can then try to salvage what’s left of my life.”