Richard Raugust, the Trout Creek man sentenced to life in prison for the 1997 murder of his best friend, was fully exonerated of the deliberate homicide charge Thursday after having spent 18 years of his life confined to a cell.
Attorneys and advocates with the Montana Innocence Project stood by Raugust’s side at the University of Montana School of Law in Missoula on Sept. 8 to announce the exoneration, a rare development in the United States criminal justice system, and an even rarer one in Montana, where Raugust became the first wrongfully convicted inmate to have his name cleared in a deliberate homicide case.
“This is truly a watershed moment,” said Brett Schandelson, an attorney with the Tipp and Buley law firm in Missoula who provided legal representation on a pro bono basis for the Montana Innocence Project, which appealed Raugust’s case in 2012. “Richard was the first client of the Montana Innocence Project to be released through litigation, and as of today he stands as our first exoneree. He will not be our last.”
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. Prior to his release, he had been incarcerated at the Montana State Prison in Deer Lodge, slowly mounting a case for his innocence.
Since his release, Raugust has been living in Missoula, where he recently self-published a book of poetry and has spent his days volunteering for the Montana Innocence Project, waiting on the outcome of the state’s appeal of Judge Wheelis’ decision.
On Aug. 29, the state dropped its bid to challenge the judge’s order, and on Sept. 7 Sanders County Attorney Robert Zimmerman filed a motion to dismiss the charge.
“I have been waiting for this day for many, many years,” Raugust told reporters during a press conference. “I am grateful for the support and dedicated work of the Montana Innocence Project, and all of the lawyers and volunteers who worked on my case. I look forward to spending time with my friends and family as a free man.”
Since the morning of his arrest, Raugust, 49, has insisted that he did not commit the murder of Joe Tash, his best friend 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.”
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