Posted on

Supreme Court Mulls Whether Christofferson Hid Evidence In Homicide Case

Kyle Severson is currently incarcerated in a Montana prison and like so many serving time, he’s waiting for an appeals process to play out at the Montana Supreme Court.

That’s not so unlike many appeals to the state’s highest court, which ask the justices to review anything from plea deals to prison discipline.

But Severson’s case is unusual because it claims that the former Richland County Attorney badly bungled the case and intentionally tried to hide evidence that would have been used to exonerate him in a 2019 shooting, for which he was convicted and sentenced to 40 years in prison.

Appellate attorneys for Severson say that former Richland County Attorney Janet Christofferson hid Brady material, a legal term dating back more than 50 years in which the prosecution may have evidence that is favorable to the defendant’s case, which they have a duty to disclose. Attorneys for Severson said that Christofferson held onto evidence, not disclosing it to Severson’s attorneys, which could have led to an acquittal for the killing of Tyler Hayden. Meanwhile, attorneys for the state claim that the materials the former prosecutor did not disclose would not have made a difference at trial, and the state’s highest court should uphold his conviction.

Appellate attorneys for Severson are asking the Montana Supreme Court whether withholding evidence constituted a “Brady violation” and whether Christofferson’s “repeated misconduct” violated his constitutional right to a fair trial.

Defense or murder?

Severson’s attorneys allege that he was just defending himself on the night of July 2, 2019, as well as his girlfriend and 3-year-old daughter, against Hayden, a man who they claimed had repeatedly assaulted Severson.

Immediately after shooting Hayden at a convenience store, Severson turned himself into law enforcement in Sidney, and claimed self-defense. He was originally charged with deliberate homicide, but a jury found him guilty of the lesser crime of mitigated deliberate homicide and sentenced him to 40 years in Montana State Prison.

The case file details more than a year of altercations between the two, including menacing messages Hayden sent to Severson. Severson told the court he started carrying a gun for protection in 2018, and said Hayden often would become violent without cause.

The actual shooting that July took place quickly — in just minutes, after a brief confrontation between Hayden and Severson’s girlfriend at the convenience store. As Severson’s girlfriend rushed to leave the store, Hayden approached the car, blocking it, according to trial transcripts. The driver of the car Hayden was traveling in said that he put a .22-caliber pistol in his pants.

Severson told the court when Hayden approached, he knew “(Hayden) was obviously going to be violent.”

Severson’s girlfriend told him that Hayden was fidgeting for something in his pockets, and so he grabbed a pistol off the car’s floor, “pointed it out the window, pressed it to (Hayden’s) chest, and pulled the trigger.”

Defense attorneys during trial said that Severson had lived in fear that Hayden would rob or hurt him. On the night of the shooting, Severson’s home was burglarized and Hayden’s girlfriend, Keaston Johns, was the primary suspect as well as other suspects who lived, at times, with Dalton Watson, the driver of the vehicle in which Hayden had traveled to the convenience store that night.

In a separate and unrelated drug raid at Watson’s apartment, police found items stolen from Severson’s house, including $300 Johns had stolen from Severson’s safe.

During the trial, defense attorneys attempted to introduce the burglary as evidence to prove that Severson was worried and feared an attack from Hayden or Watson, but the state, led by then-county attorney Christoffersen, objected “vigorously” and the court denied the motion, after Christoffersen told the judge, Olivia Rieger, the burglary was “completely irrelevant to the shooting.”

The appeal to the state Supreme Court said that Christoffersen never disclosed to Severson’s legal team that it knew his stolen property was found in an apartment linked to Hayden. The defense told the court that Watson and Hayden intercepted Severson at the convenience store “in an effort to slow up his progress in returning home while the burglars finished the job.”

Severson’s legal team also filed motions in court to compel Christoffersen and the prosecution to turn over the contents of Watson’s cell phone, which they had in their possession. They said that texts or other information on the cell phone would prove that Hayden planned to harm Severson, or threaten him.

During Day 2 of the trial, the court expressed regret for denying the original motion that would have provided more information about the burglary and District Court Judge Rieger said that it was “falsely led to believe that the (burglary) information was not in any way, shape or form relevant when it clearly was.”

The Daily Montanan has reached out to Christoffersen, but she did not respond to requests to talk about this case.

Christoffersen was the Richland County Attorney from 2018 to 2022, when she decided not to run for re-election. She had previously served as a deputy county attorney and was in private practice for 10 years. Prior to that, she had run for a state district court judge against Katherine Bidegaray. In 2023, she was appointed as interim county attorney in Roosevelt County, where she grew up.

The court also criticized Christoffersen for not searching Watson’s phone for evidence related to the trial.

“I’m very troubled by this evidence and the disclosure,” Regier said, according to court transcripts contained in the appeal to the Supreme Court. “The court is worried about Brady violations here. I’m worried about exculpatory or inculpatory evidence not being disclosed.”

Watson told the court he could not remember his passcode on his cellphone, and Rieger expressed concern about the court record.

“I have significant concerns for the record that this is a Brady violation,” she said.

Rieger asked Severson’s attorneys if they wanted a continuance, but his attorneys said he’d been incarcerated for 15 months and he wanted a resolution. Meanwhile, Rieger called Christoffersen’s failure to examine the cell phone sooner “reckless.”

Severson’s attorney filed a motion to dismiss the case against their client with prejudice, meaning charges could not be refiled at a later time, because of the Brady violation, but Rieger said she’d reserve ruling on the motion until after the trial because it did not know what was on Watson’s cell phone. However, during trial Rieger called the matter “a disaster” that could have been avoided had Christoffersen handed over the burglary evidence sooner. Five months after the trial, a forensic expert was finally able to unlock and extract the phone’s data, and turned it over to the court. But by then, the attorneys had withdrawn from the case “and never reviewed this data.” And by then, Severson was already convicted, beginning his 40year sentence.

During the trial, appellate attorneys also detail how Christoffersen was ordered not to refer to Severson as a “drug dealer” because he was, in fact, a medical marijuana provider. Still, the transcript shows that Christoffersen violated that order.

Severson’s attorneys claimed Christoffersen was “trying to bait them into a mistrial,” and asked that jury be told that her questions “were inappropriate.”

“I am going to grant the defendant the ability to raise the motion for mistrial,” Rieger said, according to the transcripts. “I am because I think that is absolutely your right.”

Turning to Christofferson, the judge said, “I am beyond frustrated with the way this trial has gone. It has been a mess. I can’t believe that the seriousness of this charge and seriousness of this prosecution yields to such fast and loose playing with the rules, the law, the court rules, the court’s orders. The question, and I’m going to put the parties on notice, is whether this is a manifest injustice where jeopardy has attached on a mistrial to where Mr. Severson could or could not be tried again. That’s how serious we are.”

What was on the phone

Attorneys for Severson in their appeal say that Watson’s phone had exculpatory evidence on it. They say that the phone revealed Hayden had pulled a gun on another man during an altercation the day before the shooting, rebutting the testimony during trial that he was unarmed and peaceful the night of the shooting.” “This was a Brady due process violation that demanded – and still demands – dismissal with prejudice,” attorneys said. “This pattern of prosecutorial misconduct violated Severson’s constitutional right to a fair trial.”

According to federal law, Severson must show the state had evidence that was favorable to the defense, suppressed it, and that by keeping it hidden, prejudiced the defense. Moreover, case law also says that evidence must be disclosed in time for defense attorneys to incorporate it into their case.

“For almost a year, the state inaccurately promised the district court the burglary had no relevance to Severson’s case whatsoever,” the court documents said. “The prosecutor’s stonewalling deflected attention from the potential relevance of Watson’s phone and ran out the clock on the defense’s ability to examine it. The state also decided to never analyze Watson’s phone on its own. The prosecutor knew Watson’s phone could contain exculpatory evidence, but as long as she did not know that for certain, she would not be obligated to disclose anything to the defense. “The prosecutor ignored that the purpose of discovery is to search for truth, not to remain deliberately ignorant of it.”

The state responds

Although Christoffersen left the role of Richland County Attorney, attorneys with the Montana Attorney General’s Office responded to the appeal by offering several defenses, arguing that if there were any violations at trial, it should result in a mistrial, not overturning the verdict because of Brady violations.

State attorneys argue that the defense’s reliance upon the burglary is misguided because at the time of the deadly confrontation between Severson and Hayden at the convenience store, Severson would not have known about the burglary, therefore wouldn’t have had cause to be on the defensive. Moreover, the state argued that the defense attorneys had the chance to ask for a mistrial, wait for a continuance to see what material was on Watson’s cell phone and had the chance to tailor the jury instructions so as not to prejudice Severson. Instead, those attorneys said that Rieger provided ample opportunities for defense, but Severson and his attorneys chose not to take them.

Even had the information on the phone been known and presentable, attorneys for the state also argue it would have not likely influenced the jury. “The security camera video from across the street show that a mere five seconds passed from Hayden stepping out of (the truck) and Severson shooting him,” the appeal brief said. “Even if Hayden had a gun in pocked but had not revealed it to Severson, Severson’s belief that he needed to shoot Tyler to defend himself would not have been reasonable.”

For now, Severson sits in a prison in Shelby. Christoffersen has found herself embroiled in a different unrelated controversy in Roosevelt County. And the state’s highest court will likely soon issue a decision on whether a trial described as “a mess” was just messy, or miscarriage of justice.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *