State v. Halter

Decision Date15 August 1989
Docket NumberNo. 88-610,88-610
Citation777 P.2d 1313,238 Mont. 408
PartiesSTATE of Montana, Plaintiff and Appellant, v. Winifred P. "Jerry" HALTER, Defendant and Respondent.
CourtMontana Supreme Court

Marc Racicot, Atty. Gen., Betsy Brandborg, Asst. Atty. Gen., Helena, Thomas J. Sheehy, County Atty., Fort Benton, for plaintiff and appellant.

Robert D. Morrison, Morrison, Young, Melcher and Brown, Havre, for defendant and respondent.

SHEEHY, Justice.

The State of Montana appeals from an order of the District Court, Twelfth Judicial District, Chouteau County, dismissing with prejudice an information charging the defendant, Winifred P. "Jerry" Halter with two felonies upon the grounds that the State had allowed exculpatory evidence to be destroyed to the prejudice of the defendant.

We affirm the District Court.

The information filed March 16, 1988, charged the defendant in two counts, (1) felony theft, committed between September, 1986, and February 23, 1988, and (2) illegal branding, committed between May, 1987, and February 23, 1988. The subject of the branding was a red Limousin bull that on February 22, 1988 was found in the cow herd of Earl Sluggett on his ranch southeast of Big Sandy, Montana. Subsequent investigation revealed that the bull was owned by Ruth Owens and her daughter, Betty Donner, and that the bull had been missing since May 22, 1987. They resided on a ranch on the south side of the Missouri River and in reporting the bull missing, stated that they believed that the bull had crossed the Missouri River to the north side and might be found in the general area where the defendant's ranch is located.

Earl Sluggett informed the inspectors that the bull had been in his herd on a previous occasion and at that time did not have the brand belonging to the defendant. This was probably in May, 1987. Sluggett also stated that on another occasion, the same bull had been on a ranch owned by Larry Jappe, who resides in the same area.

When Sluggett reported the discovery of the bull on his ranch on February 27, 1988, the bull carried two brands. The brand on the bull's right hip was identified as belonging to Merritt Pride, from whom the bull had been purchased by Ruth Owens' husband, the late Cecil Owens. The brand on the left hip of the bull appeared to be that of the defendant Halter.

Halter was arrested and entered a plea of not guilty to the charges. Thereafter, an omnibus hearing was held in the District Court at which counsel for the defendant moved for and was granted discovery of all of the State's written or recorded statements, names of the State's witnesses, copies of any statements, inspection of all physical and documentary evidence in the State's possession and discovery of all special or additional information coming thereafter into the State's possession. At the same hearing, the State indicated that it would call expert witnesses whose names would be supplied to the defendant, as well as copies of reports of any scientific tests and experiments which the State might conduct.

On July 6, 1988, the defendant moved the court for an order allowing the inspection of the red Limousin bull for the purpose of utilizing an expert of defendant's choice to inspect the brands. The motion indicated that the county attorney had told the defendant's counsel that the bull had been sold. The motion requested that the State take whatever action was necessary to locate the bull and allow the inspection.

On July 25, 1988, the county attorney moved the court to set a trial date. On July 26, 1988, defendant filed a written objection to the motion for trial date stating that the State had not responded to defendant's motion for inspection of the bull and indicating that the county attorney had advised the defendant by letter that the bull "may have been slaughtered." On August 1, 1988, the county attorney filed a reply to the motion for inspection stating that the bull had been sold at auction on May 20, 1988, and thereafter, the bull had been slaughtered. In the reply, the county attorney advised that the defendant had had an opportunity to examine the animal and that photographs of the bull were taken by the defendant.

The District Court set the cause for trial on September 21, 1988. The defendant moved to vacate the trial setting on the grounds that the bull had been slaughtered, that the animal was unavailable for inspection by the defendant's expert and that the expert's testimony was critical to support the defendant's contemplated motion to dismiss by reason of destruction of exculpatory evidence.

On October 7, 1988, defendant's counsel filed a motion to dismiss the charges against Halter because of the State's failure to preserve exculpatory evidence in the possession and control of the State's agents. Counsel for the defendant also filed an affidavit from Dr. Anthony Stannard, a doctor of veterinary medicine of the University of California, and a Ph.D. in veterinary pathology. His affidavit related that he had, at the request of attorneys for Halter, reviewed nine skin samples obtained from the branded pelts of nine head of cattle taken by a Havre veterinarian, conducted experiments on the same, and determined the ages of the brands, to which he could certify within 60 days. The affidavit stated that evidence from Halter would show that defendant was not in possession of the red Limousin bull from at least November 1, 1987, through February 25, 1988, and from the early spring of 1987 through June, 1987. The affidavit related that if Dr. Stannard could have inspected a skin sample from the red Limousin bull prior to its destruction, he could have determined if the brand in question was placed on the bull during the time periods set forth.

The contentions of the defendant's counsel at the time of the motion to dismiss charges against Halter were that the slaughter of the bull prevented defendant from establishing that it was branded at a time when it was in the possession of others; that inspection would reveal the type of branding iron used which could be compared to those used by the defendant; that the slaughter prevented a direct comparison of defendant's branding irons with the brand on the bull; and that the defendant was denied a comparison of the weight of the bull in question with the weight of the bulls previously owned by defendant.

In objecting to the motion to dismiss, the State contended before the District...

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13 cases
  • State Of Mont. v. Meredith
    • United States
    • Montana Supreme Court
    • February 9, 2010
    ...the defense, were not exculpatory in nature, and the result would not have been affected by their introduction. State v. Halter, 238 Mont. 408, 412, 777 P.2d 1313, 1316 (1989) State v. Craig, 169 Mont. 150, 545 P.2d 649 (1976)). Furthermore, the exculpatory nature of the evidence must have ......
  • State v. Herman
    • United States
    • Montana Supreme Court
    • March 31, 2009
    ...evidence by other reasonable means and the exculpatory value was apparent before the evidence was lost. State v. Halter, 238 Mont. 408, 412, 777 P.2d 1313, 1316 (1989). ¶ 32 Herman claims the lost videotape would play a significant role in his defense because even though his father testifie......
  • State v. Fisher
    • United States
    • Montana Supreme Court
    • October 5, 2021
    ...generally to the idea that the missing items are self-evidently important, being irreplaceable blood, footprints, or hairs. But unlike in Halter Colvin, where the lost evidence was material to both the State's and the defense's cases regarding an essential element of the crime, the evidence......
  • State v. Strand
    • United States
    • Montana Supreme Court
    • December 16, 1997
    ...(quoting California v. Trombetta (1984), 467 U.S. 479, 488-89, 104 S.Ct. 2528, 2534, 81 L.Ed.2d 413, 422); and State v. Halter (1989), 238 Mont. 408, 412, 777 P.2d 1313, 1316 (quoting Trombetta, 467 U.S. at 488-89, 104 S.Ct. at In the case at bar, the record is completely devoid of even a m......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

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