Trial for Alleged Arsonist Postponed Due to Jury Pool Problems

Slated to begin Oct. 13, the trial was vacated for a 37-year-old Ronan man accused of igniting the Boulder 2700 wildfire that destroyed homes on Finley Point in 2021. A new trial date has been set for Feb. 2, 2024

By Tristan Scott
The twisted and charred remains of a structure take by the Boulder 2700 Fire along the east shore of Flathead Lake as seen on Aug. 26, 2021. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

The same compliance issues spoiling jury pools in judicial districts across Montana has postponed the arson trial of a Ronan man accused of intentionally setting the Boulder 2700 wildfire, which destroyed dozens of homes on Flathead Lake in July 2021.

The 37-year-old defendant, Craig Allen McCrea, has pleaded not guilty to three felony counts of arson. He was scheduled to stand trial on Oct. 13, but the criminal proceeding was vacated in an emergency status hearing last month when McCrea and his attorney, Shandor Badaruddin, “decided that the jury selection process is not acceptable,” according to a minute entry by Lake County Clerk of Court Lyn Fricker.

The trial was reset for Feb. 2, 2024, at 10 a.m.

Although details in the minute entry are scant, Lake County Attorney James Lapotka stated in an email that “the continuance was a result of a statewide issue with the general jury selection process.”

Earlier this month, attorneys for Steven J. Hedrick, a 33-year-old Whitefish man set to stand trial on deliberate homicide charges in Flathead County District Court, successfully had the proceeding postponed after arguing that a structural error in the jury selection process undermined their client’s right to a fair and impartial trial.

In that case, as with other criminal cases across the state, the defense counsel argued that the clerk of court did not follow proper protocol when they failed to follow up with members of the jury pool who don’t respond to their jury notices.

Chief Justice Mike McGrath ordered that Hedrick’s motion be taken under advisement, which allows him to review the case and decide if the jury selection process in Flathead County impedes his right to a fair and impartial trial. He is required to rule on the matter by Oct. 16.

While Flathead is the only county to petition the high court for a decision, jury trials in Cascade and Yellowstone counties – and now Lake County – have been derailed due to similar jury selection issues.

Additionally, the jury panel issue has impacted cases that have already gone to trial, defense attorneys say, including in the case of Jonathan Shaw, who was convicted of deliberate homicide in July.

In that case, defense attorneys Colin Stephens and Paul Simon filed a motion for a new trial, arguing that the jury was “improperly drawn” because Flathead County officials did not enforce responses from the individuals who ignored jury notices. Those who failed to respond to the notices were removed from the jury pool, which violated the defendant’s right to a fair and impartial jury, according to the motion.

In Shaw’s case, Flathead County District Judge Dan Wilson on Sept. 12 ordered that Shaw’s sentencing hearing, which was scheduled for Sept. 21, be vacated and reset following his ruling on the motion.

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