HELENA, Mont. — The state is no longer challenging a judge’s order that overturned the deliberate homicide conviction and life sentence of a man who said he was wrongly convicted of killing his best friend nearly two decades ago.
District Judge James Wheelis last November overturned Richard Raugust’s conviction for the July 1999 shooting death of Joe Tash in northwestern Montana. Wheelis said the state withheld evidence from Raugust’s defense team that might have led to a different verdict.
Wheelis freed Raugust, 49, from custody in December after he spent more than 18 years in prison.
The state appealed Wheelis’ ruling but last week moved to dismiss that appeal. John Barnes, a spokesman with the state attorney general’s office, had no immediate comment Monday on why the appeal was dropped.
Sanders County Attorney Robert Zimmerman did not respond to an email from The Associated Press Monday asking if he planned to re-file the murder charge.
Raugust was found guilty in 1998 in the death of Tash, whose body was found inside a camp trailer near Trout Creek. He had been shot in the head with a shotgun while lying unconscious in bed after a night of drinking and smoking marijuana.
Raugust said he and Tash had been friends since they were boys growing up in California. Tash was living at a Montana campsite after his father died and encouraged Raugust to join him.
“He was my best friend. He knew I liked big mountains and dense forests, and when I asked him about the trees he told me, ‘Some of them, you can’t even see through them,'” Raugust told the Flathead Beacon during a July 2015 prison interview.
The men worked logging and construction jobs, spent their evenings at a local saloon, fished and smoked marijuana, Raugust said.
On the night Tash was killed, Raugust said he stayed in Trout Creek after everyone left the bar because he had to work early in the morning. The others went out to the campsite to continue partying.
The Montana Innocence Project appealed Raugust’s conviction in 2012, arguing his defense attorneys did not know that a sheriff’s deputy working the night before the killing made observations that corroborated Raugust’s story that he stayed in town the night of the murder and could not have killed his friend.
Wheelis’ ruling also said that Rory Ross — who testified at trial that he saw Raugust shoot Tash after an argument — made statements to people that he had killed Tash.
Zimmerman in court documents described Ross is an alcoholic, saying that “the mumblings of a town drunk” are unreliable.
Missoula attorney Brett Schandelson said officials contradicted themselves by presenting Ross at trial as a star witness and later labeling him unreliable.
Ross refused to testify during a December 2014 evidentiary hearing on Raugust’s petition, agreeing when the judge asked if he was afraid of saying something incriminatory.
Schandelson said he and the Montana Innocence Project look forward to defending Raugust if the charge is revived.
Raugust’s appeal included a sworn statement from the forewoman of his jury who said she felt the conviction was a miscarriage of justice, did not believe the state proved its case and felt pressured to deliver a guilty verdict after a judge said the country could not afford another trial.