Cecil Thomas Rice was convicted of murder on Tuesday, six months after he shoved a 34-year-old man off a bridge and into the frigid Flathead River below.
A jury convicted Rice, 26, of deliberate homicide after two days of testimony in Flathead County District Court. During the trial, prosecutors argued that Rice murdered Anthony Walthers over suggestive comments he made about his wife, Heather Meeker.
But defense attorney Steven Scott argued what unfolded on Holt Stage Road east of Kalispell on April 26 was not murder but a tragic accident. Scott told the jury the evidence suggested Walthers was extremely intoxicated and fell off the bridge, known to locals as the Old Steel Bridge.
According to court records and testimony, Rice, Walthers, Meeker and Cody Robinson were all homeless at the time of the death. On April 26, the four people were at a Kalispell church for dinner. During the course of the meal, Walthers allegedly made sexually suggestive comments about Meeker. Rice, who had been with Meeker for a decade and was the father of her three children, threatened Walthers.
“If you say that one more time, I’m going to throw you off a [expletive] bridge,” Rice allegedly told Walthers.
After dinner, the four people drove to the Old Steel Bridge to smoke marijuana. Robinson testified that on the ride over, Rice continued to suggest he was going to push Walthers off the bridge if he kept talking about his wife. However, Robinson said he thought Rice was joking.
“It seemed like everyone was in a really good mood, laughing and having a good time,” Robinson said during the first day of trial.
When the four people arrived at a fishing access near the bridge, Rice and Robinson immediately started walking toward it while Walthers and Meeker lagged behind. Meeker testified that Walthers expressed concern that Rice would hurt him. Meeker reassured him that he was safe. The four people were walking on the bridge when Walthers allegedly made another comment about Meeker.
According to Meeker, Rice put his arm around Walthers and reassured him he was not going to hurt him as he guided him to the north side of the bridge, which had a short guardrail. Meeker and Robinson both testified that they heard a scuffle and then a splash. When they turned to look at what happened, Walthers was gone and Rice was walking back to his car with his hood up.
Multiple people who were fishing along the river testified they saw Walthers screaming for help but that they could not assist him because the river was running so fast and high. A 17-year-old boy from Kalispell who was fishing with his grandmother testified that he ran alongside the river until he couldn’t see the body.
“His last words were ‘help’ and then his head went below the surface,” the teen testified.
Rice, Meeker and Robinson immediately fled the scene of the crime. As they drove away, Rice saw a bag in the car that he thought belonged to Walthers and ordered Meeker to throw it out the window. According to Meeker and Robinson, the three made the pact in the car that if anyone asked about Walthers they would say he fell into the river.
Meeker testified that on the drive back to Kalispell, Rice started to joke about Walthers’ death, adding, “I told him so, I told him so.”
The following day, Robinson went to police and told them Rice had pushed Walthers off of the bridge. Rice and Meeker were arrested on April 27. Rice was charged with deliberate homicide and Meeker was charged with tampering with evidence. Meeker is expected to stand trial in 2018.
On the second day of trial, the jury heard testimony from law enforcement officers who investigated the crime and recovered Walthers’ body from Flathead Lake a month after he fell into the river. The jury also heard testimony from experts at the Montana State Crime Lab detailing the conditions of Walthers’ body when it was recovered. According to forensics toxicologist Crystal Everett, a urine sample from Walthers’ body showed he had been drinking prior to his death.
A 29-year-old Columbia Falls man, who was incarcerated with Rice in the Flathead County Detention Center in May, testified about hearing the defendant talking to another inmate about how he pushed a man off a bridge.
Shortly after 11 a.m. on Tuesday, prosecutor John Donovan rested his case. With the jury briefly out of the courtroom, the defense filed a motion to dismiss the case. Scott argued the state did not have a convincing case and that it should not go to the jury. Judge Dan Wilson denied the motion. After a 90-minute lunch break, the jury returned to the court and the defense announced it would rest its case without putting any witnesses on the stand. Closing arguments began shortly after 1 p.m.
Prosecutor Alison Howard recounted the testimony the jury heard over the previous two days and said it all pointed to Rice as the culprit. After the state made its case, it was Scott’s turn to talk to the jury. Scott tried to convince the jury that the state had not proved its case beyond a reasonable doubt and that there was evidence that Walthers was drunk and had simply fallen off the bridge. Scott spent approximately 30 minutes poking holes in the state’s case and noting discrepancies in Meeker and Robinson’s testimonies. He explained Rice’s jokes about the death amounted to the defendant “trying to be tough.” He said the inmate who testified about hearing Rice discuss the murder misheard his client, who was actually just describing the crime with which he’d been charged. And Scott argued that the bridge had a slight tilt, which along with Walthers’ inebriated condition led to the “tragedy.”
Scott also noted that neither Meeker nor Robinson actually saw Rice push Walthers off the bridge. He said what sounded like a scuffle could actually have been Rice trying to grab Walthers and prevent him from falling.
“This was an accident, nothing more and nothing less,” Scott said. “It is a tragedy that Anthony died but it was an accident. It was not murder.”
Donovan then made a brief rebuttal where he reminded the jury that if it was an accident then why did Rice quickly flee the scene with his hood up.
“This wasn’t a tragedy, this was Cecil Rice following thru on a threat he had previously made,” Donovan said. “What did Cecil do after telling Anthony that he was going to throw him off a bridge?”
“He drove him to a bridge.”
The case was handed off to the jury at approximately 2 p.m. Jurors deliberated about 90 minutes before reaching a unanimous verdict. As the court clerk read “guilty,” Anthony Walthers’ family embraced one another. Rice remained emotionless. Judge Wilson announced he would set sentencing at a later date, sometime in 2018. Afterward, Rice shook his attorney’s hand and was led back to the county jail.
Members of Walthers’ family hugged the prosecutors on their way out of the courtroom. Christina Bowers, Walthers’ ex-wife and the mother of his two children, said the verdict would help bring closure to the family.
“I’m just glad that the jury saw the truth,” she said. “I’m glad that I can tell my children that justice has been served.”