Murder Or Injustice On The Montana North Dakota Border?
Like many others serving time, Kyle Severson is presently detained in a Montana jail while an appeals process unfolds at the Montana Supreme Court.
That's similar to the numerous appeals that go to the supreme court of the state, where the justices consider matters ranging from prison discipline to plea bargains.
Severson was convicted and sentenced to 40 years in prison for a shooting in 2019, but his case is unique because it asserts that the former Richland County Attorney purposefully attempted to conceal information that may have exonerated him. The case was poorly botched, according to the charges.
According to Severson's appellate attorneys, former Richland County Attorney Janet Christofferson concealed Brady material, a legal concept that has been around for over 50 years. This means that the prosecution is obligated to reveal any information that could be helpful to the defendant's case.
Christofferson allegedly withheld evidence that would have resulted in Tyler Hayden's acquittal from Severson's attorneys, who had previously represented their client. At the same time, state's attorneys argue that the former prosecutor's failure to disclose evidence would have had no impact on the trial and that the highest court in the state should affirm his conviction.
The Daily Montanan published an article on Monday detailing how Janet Christoffersen, a former attorney for Richland County, is currently involved in litigation in Roosevelt County after relocating there.
In an appeal to the Montana Supreme Court, Severson's legal team is arguing that Christofferson's "repeated misconduct" and the suppression of evidence amounted to a "Brady violation" and a breach of Severson's right to a fair trial, respectively.
The legal team for Severson asserts that their client was merely protecting himself, his girlfriend, and their 3-year-old daughter from the man named Hayden, whom they asserted had assaulted Severson multiple times, on the evening of July 2, 2019.
Severson confessed to police in Sidney that he shot Hayden in self-defense shortly after the incident at the convenience store. He was handed a 40-year prison term after being found guilty of mitigated deliberate homicide, a lower penalty than deliberate homicide, by a jury.
In the court file, it is detailed how the two got into fights over a year ago, with Hayden sending threatening messages to Severson. Severson testified that he began carrying a firearm for self-defense in 2018 and that Hayden frequently acted violently without provocation.
Following a short altercation between Hayden and Severson's girlfriend at the convenience shop, the actual shooting that occurred in July occurred in a matter of minutes. Trial transcripts show that when Severson's girlfriend was running out of the store, Hayden blocked her path to the automobile. According to Hayden's passenger, the driver concealed a.22-caliber revolver in his jeans.
When Hayden came up to Severson, "(Hayden) was obviously going to be violent," Severson informed the court.
Severson retrieved a handgun from the trunk, "pointed it out the window, pressed it to (Hayden's) chest, and pulled the trigger" after hearing from his girlfriend that Hayden was reaching for something in his pockets.
At trial, Severson's defense lawyers claimed that their client had lived in constant terror that Hayden would harm or rob him. Keaston Johns, Hayden's girlfriend, was the main suspect in the burglary of Severson's home on the night of the shooting. Other suspects included people who lived with Dalton Watson, who drove the car that Hayden used to go to the convenience store that night.
Unrelated to the narcotics raid at Watson's flat, police recovered goods looted from Severson's residence, among them $300 that Johns had pilfered from Severson's safe.
The state's then-county attorney, Christoffersen objected "vigorously" during the trial, and the court denied the defense's motion, stating that the burglary was "completely irrelevant to the shooting." This came after defense attorneys tried to use the burglary as evidence that Severson was worried and feared an attack from Hayden or Watson.
Christoffersen failed to inform Severson's attorneys that it knew the stolen goods were located in an apartment associated with Hayden, according to the state supreme court appeal. According to the defense's account in court, Watson and Hayden approached the convenience store with the intention of obstructing Severson's return home "so the burglars could finish the job."
The legal team for Severson also moved the court to order the prosecution and Christoffersen to hand over the contents of Watson's cell phone. They said that Hayden's threats and text messages on the phone would establish that he intended to hurt or threaten Severson.
It was "falsely led to believe that the (burglary) information was not in any way, shape, or form relevant when it clearly was," District Court Judge Rieger said during Day 2 of the trial, and the court expressed regret for rejecting the initial motion that would have offered more details about the burglary.
Christoffersen did not reply to requests that she speak with the Daily Montanan regarding this matter, despite their repeated attempts.
From 2018 until 2022, Christoffersen served as the attorney for Richland County. She chose not to seek re-election in 2022. After working for ten years in private practice, she became a deputy county attorney. She had previously challenged Katherine Bidegaray in an election for the position of state district court judge. She served as an interim county attorney in her hometown of Roosevelt County in 2023.
Christoffersen was also found wanting by the court for failing to check Watson's phone for trial-related evidence.
Regier expressed his deep concern over the evidence and disclosure in a statement that is included in the court transcripts that are part of the appeal to the Supreme Court. Because of potential Brady violations, the court is concerned. The potential withholding of exonerating or inculpatory evidence is a source of concern for me.
Rieger voiced her displeasure with the court record, while Watson said he had forgotten his cellphone's passcode.
She expressed her strong suspicions that this could be a Brady breach.
Rieger inquired as to whether Severson's lawyers desired a continuance, but they responded that their client had already served 15 months in prison and was ready for a conclusion. Rieger criticized Christoffersen for being "reckless" in not checking the phone sooner.
Rieger stated that she would wait to rule on the motion until after the trial concluded since it was unclear what was on Watson's cell phone. This was in response to Severson's attorney's motion to dismiss the charges against their client with prejudice, meaning that charges could not be refiled later, due to the Brady violation.
Christoffersen should have turned over the burglary evidence sooner, according to Rieger, who referred to the whole situation as "a disaster" during trial.
After five months of trial, a forensic specialist succeeded in unlocking the phone and retrieving its data, which was then returned to the court. However, by that point, the lawyers had already dropped out of the lawsuit "and never reviewed this data." At that point, Severson had already begun serving a 40-year term after his conviction.
Christoffersen was instructed not to call Severson a "drug dealer" throughout the trial, as the latter was a medicinal marijuana provider, according to the appellate counsel's account. It is clear from the transcript, nevertheless, that Christoffersen disobeyed that directive.
Christoffersen was accused by Severson's lawyers of "trying to bait them into a mistrial" and of her "inappropriate" questioning.
Rieger reportedly stated, "I am going to grant the defendant the ability to raise the motion for mistrial" in order to preserve proceedings. "I am because I firmly believe that you are completely correct."
In addressing Christofferson, the judge expressed her extreme frustration with the progress of the trial. Things have been chaotic. It is unbelievable that the rules, laws, court regulations, and court orders are being so wildly disregarded despite the gravity of the charge and prosecution.
The matter at hand is whether there has been a clear injustice in this case, which could lead to a mistrial and the possibility of retrying Mr. Severson. I will inform the parties of this. We mean it when we say that.
According to Severson's appeal lawyers, Watson's phone had evidence that could have cleared his name. According to their claims, Hayden's phone showed that he had assaulted another guy the day prior to the shooting, casting doubt on his claim of being unarmed and calm on the night of the incident.
Advocacy groups argued that the case should be dismissed with prejudice because of a Brady due process violation.
The fact that Severson was denied a fair trial was a result of a pattern of prosecutorial misconduct.
Severson must prove, under federal law, that the state possessed defense-friendly material, concealed it, and prejudiced the defense as a result. Evidence must also be revealed in a timely manner so that defense attorneys can incorporate it into their case, according to case law.
The court records stated that for over a year, the state falsely assured the district court that the burglary was unrelated to Severson's case. The defense was able to use the prosecutor's stonewalling to delay their examination of Watson's phone, which may have been relevant to the case.
It was also agreed that the state would never conduct its own analysis of Watson's phone. The prosecutor was aware that Watson's phone may have incriminating information, but she was under no duty to inform the defense of this fact until she had absolute certainty.
Despite Christoffersen stepping down as Richland County Attorney, the Montana Attorney General's Office responded to the appeal with multiple defenses. They argued that any violations during the trial should have resulted in a mistrial, not a decision overturned due to Brady violations.
The defense is based on the burglary, but state attorneys say that's a mistake because Severson wouldn't have known about it when he and Hayden had their fatal fight at the convenience store. Hence, Severson wouldn't have been on the defensive.
On top of that, the state claimed that the defense team could have asked for a mistrial, sought a continuance to examine Watson's cell phone, and modified the jury instructions to not unfairly target Severson. Lawyers representing Severson countered that their client had missed several defense options presented by Rieger.
The state's lawyers maintain that the jury would not have been swayed by the phone evidence, even if it had been known and presented.
According to the appeal brief, five seconds passed from Hayden stepping out of the truck and Severson shooting him, based on the security camera footage from across the street. It would not have been logical for Severson to believe he needed to shoot Tyler to defend himself, even if Hayden had a gun in his pocket but hadn't exposed it to him.
Severson is currently incarcerated in a Shelby prison. In Roosevelt County, Christoffersen is now involved in a separate and unrelated scandal. Also, the highest court in the state will probably rule soon on whether the "a mess" trial was actually a miscarriage of justice or merely untidy.
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