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Montana Supreme Court Overturns Sidney’s Homicide Conviction

Kyle Severson shot Tyler Hayden outside a Sidney convenience store on July 2, 2019.

A jury convicted him of mitigated deliberate homicide and a judge sentenced him to 40 years in prison.

But even the judge noted the prosecutor’s handling of the case had been “a disaster,” and appellate attorneys for Severson claimed that prosecutors withheld evidence that later showed Severson had feared Hayden, and that just the day before Hayden had pulled a gun on another person.

Because of the way evidence was handled and how former Richland County Attorney Janet Christoffersen had prosecuted the case, the Montana Supreme Court reversed the conviction unanimously and will send the case back for a new trial.

The court was persuaded that Christoffersen intentionally hid evidence that was likely to have made a difference at Severson’s trial. Furthermore, they said the missteps made by Christoffersen were so egregious as to constitute misconduct.

“The misconduct again contributes to the court’s consideration of cumulative error,” the opinion, written by Justice Beth Baker, said. “The prosecutor’s misconduct likewise goes directly to the credibility of the witnesses at trial…The District Court described this trial as ‘a disaster.’ Given the string of missteps and errors in the case, namely the prosecutor’s implicit suggestion to the jury through improper questioning that Severson and (his girlfriend) were drug dealers and the state’s failure to disclose the burglary information — all going to the essential issue of witness credibility — we conclude this is ‘the rare case in which the cumulative effect of the errors’ has prejudiced the defendant’s right to a fair trial.”

Christoffersen, who left her role as the Richland County Attorney, and then had a tumultuous relationship serving as the Roosevelt County Attorney, is now running for district court judge in Roosevelt County.

The case centers on the relationship between Severson and Hayden. Severson had claimed that he was frightened of Hayden who had acted violently toward him. Severson admitted he shot Hayden quickly, but was acting out of self-defense because his girlfriend and child were stopped by Hayden at the convenience store. Later that night, Severson’s home was burglarized by people associated by Hayden, including his girlfriend at the time.

The court found that Christoffersen had suppressed or buried evidence that could have swayed the jury. Those included text messages of Hayden threatening others and pulling a gun on another man the day before the confrontation with Severson. His attorneys argue that the jury could have seen that Severson had reason to fear Hayden.

“It is not enough that a criminal defendant show that the state possessed favorable evidence, he must also show the government suppressed the evidence,” the opinion said. “Although the state is under no affirmative obligation to ‘take initiative or even assist the defendant with procuring exculpatory evidence, neither may the state impede the defense’s gathering of relevant evidence through the employment of rules and regulations.’” Furthermore, the court found that the Richland County Attorney’s Office had repeatedly thwarted inquiries about the burglary that happened at Severson’s residence the night of the shooting, where people, including Hayden’s girlfriend, stole property, raising questions about whether violence against Severson was planned.

“The information connecting the burglary to the shooting had the potential to lead directly to the discovery of other exculpatory evidence,” said the Supreme Court’s decision. “Severson’s defense rested primarily on his claim that he was afraid for his and his family’s safety when he shot Hayden. Key to that claim was Severson’s state of mind when he shot Hayden and whether the jury found his testimony credible. At a minimum, had the defense been aware of an altercation between Hayden and Brown just a day earlier, Severson would have had the opportunity to interview Brown about the incident, about the type of gun Hayden brandished, and about Hayden’s reputation for violence.”

On appeal, attorneys in the case argued that Severson’s constitutional rights had been violated because of Brady violations — a term used to identify when prosecutors don’t disclose evidence from the defense that could be used to exonerate a defendant or reduce the charges.

“The record demonstrates that the state consistently resisted Severson’s effort to access the requested information,” the court ruling said. “Both times, Severson sought to compel the burglary reports, the state objected, claiming that no information in the reports was relevant to the shooting. It also is clear that whether by design or by oversight, the state’s failure to investigate the phone, dubious claims of irrelevance, and employment of procedural excuses amounted to suppression of favorable evidence in violation of the state’s duties under Brady.”

The Office of the Public Defender in Montana appointed appellate Michael Marchesini to the case for Severson. He said it’s rare to bring a case based on a Brady violation because of the requirement that attorneys must prove that a mistake likely made a difference in the outcome, but this case, seemed different.

“On a gut instinct it seemed fundamentally unfair from the first time I reviewed it,” Marchesini said. “It stood out to me that this was a Brady issue. They never discovered the evidence until after Severson was convicted.”

That evidence had been sitting on a cell phone of one of Hayden’s associates who described on social media some of the things they had done together, including pulling a gun on a man who was not part of the case.

“We got evidence after the sentencing that would have really helped Kyle,” Marchesini said. “The record didn’t tell his story.”

A jury convicted Severson of mitigated deliberate homicide and the district court judge Olivia Rieger sentenced him to 40 years in prison.

The Supreme Court will send the case back to Richland County for a new trial.

Richland County Attorney Charity McLarty told the Daily Montanan on Wednesday that her office was planning to retry the case. She declined to comment on whether her office would try Severson on the same charges.

Currently, Severson is also serving an eight-year concurrent sentence in the Montana Department of Corrections for witness tampering related to the case. That portion of the case was not appealed.

Marchesini told the Daily Montanan one of three options are that the case heads back to Sidney where it will be tried again; there could be a plea deal; or the prosecutor could decide to drop the charges.

“This was a complex case with dense legal issues,” Marchesini said. “I really think the Supreme Court heard our argument and understood it, then offered a thought analysis.”

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