MISSOULA, Mont. — A Montana man who spent 18 years in prison for the killing of his best friend said Thursday that he’s finally a “free member of society” after prosecutors dropped all charges against him.
Richard Raugust was convicted of deliberate homicide and sentenced to life in prison for the 1997 shooting death of Joseph Tash in a camp trailer near Trout Creek in northwestern Montana.
Raugust steadfastly denied the charges, and the Montana Innocence Project took up his case in 2009. Last November, District Judge James Wheelis overturned his conviction after ruling prosecutors suppressed evidence that might have led to a different verdict.
The state appealed Wheelis’ ruling, but last moth dropped the appeal. On Wednesday, the Sanders County attorney filed a motion to dismiss all the charges against Raugust, and Wheelis signed an order that prevents prosecutors from re-charging him with the killing.
“I’m finally back as a free member of society,” Raugust said Thursday at a news conference, according to a story posted by the Missoulian.
Tash was shot in the head with a shotgun while lying unconscious in bed inside the trailer near Trout Creek. A witness testified at trial that he saw Raugust shoot Tash after an argument.
Raugust said he and Tash had been friends since they were children, and that he was not at the trailer the night Tash was killed.
Attorneys working with the Montana Innocence Project argued in the appeal that Raugust’s trial attorneys did not know that a sheriff’s deputy had supported Raugust’s story that he stayed in town the night of the killing. The witness who testified against Raugust had also made statements to people that he, and not Raugust, had killed Tash, Wheelis said.
Montana Innocence Project legal director Larry Mansch said Raugust is the first defendant who has been exonerated with the help of the organization since it formed in 2008.