Two people charged with a pair of Missoula murders were back in court on Wednesday while their attorneys and county prosecutors debated whether the inmates should be able to conduct their own legal research while in jail.
Tiffanie Pierce and Augustus Standingrock are charged with deliberate homicide and accountability for deliberate homicide after an arrest Aug. 17, when the bodies of 15-year-old Marilyn Pickett and 24-year-old Jackson Wiles were found in three tubs filled with chemicals in the basement of Pierce’s home.
At a court appearance in early October, Pierce’s attorneys asked retired District Court Judge James Wheelis — who was brought in to oversee the case — to allow their client access to the law library at the Missoula County jail.
Missoula County Attorney Kirsten Pabst opposed the request, and later filed her own motion to allow the jail to limit law library access for Standingrock as well.
The law library — which consists of a single computer contained in a steel case in one of the rooms where inmates can meet with their attorneys — is by policy only to be used by inmates who are representing themselves, unless a court order says otherwise, said detention officer administrator Gary Evans, who testified at Wednesday’s hearing.
While under state law defendants have a right to access the legal system and aid in their own defense, Evans said the jail’s policy and instructions have been that people who have a lawyer representing them have that requirement covered.
In the October court hearing, and subsequent court filings, Pabst referenced behavior issues Pierce and Standingrock have had at the jail — including being found with weapons and other contraband and threatening harm to other inmates or detention officers — as reasons why their access to the law library should be curtailed and put under the discretion of jail staff.
According to Pabst’s filings, Pierce has discussed with another inmate how to kill someone without a weapon, including asking how much “force/torque pressure” was needed to break someone’s neck, and has said of a jail officer that she wanted to “rip that (expletive)’s head off.”
Standingrock also was involved in a roughly two-hour standoff at the jail in September after he used the sharpened handle of a shower brush to threaten staff. He also has challenged an officer to a fight and told other inmates to “stab and kill guards," according to the filings.
Lisa Kauffman, one of Pierce’s attorneys, said the 23-year-old had never been in jail before, and suggested to Evans that there could be an “adjustment period” for someone like her being put into the maximum security section of the jail. Evans agreed it was possible.
Kauffman went on to talk about the other restrictions placed on Pierce — who has been in maximum security since her arrest — including being in a cell 23 hours a day, before the county attorney said they were getting far afield from the issue of law library access that was the reason for the hearing.
“Nobody is arguing that it’s a luxury vacation,” Pabst said.
Pierce’s other attorney Brian Smith also has requested that any further disciplinary reports about Pierce be sent directly to her attorneys, as well as lead investigator Detective Stacy Lear of the Missoula Police Department. Lear, who testified Wednesday, said such disciplinary reports can contain information useful to her investigation, and that it was vital she be able to follow up such leads before a defendant learned that she was aware of them and could potentially interfere.
Wheelis said he would issue an order on the matter after he had a chance to consider it.
Standingrock likewise was put into max on arrival, although Evans said due to recent improvements in his behavior he has been moved to one of the group pods where he has more interaction with other inmates and isn’t wearing restraints at all times. Evans said the level of “privileges” that inmates have access to — including the law library — are “fluid” based on their risk factors and behavior.
As Pierce’s attorneys also mentioned, Standingrock’s lawyer Nick Brooke said his client is regularly transported by jail staff to meet with him in the same type of room that contains the law library computer — refuting the prosecution’s claim that moving the inmates from their cells to the room presents a heightened risk to jail officers. He also said Standingrock’s disciplinary issues didn’t happen in the law library and weren’t related to it.
“I feel that this is being used as punishment,” he said.
Brooke said Standingrock already had a court order from Justice of the Peace Marie Andersen allowing him to use the law library, but that his access was cut off after Pabst made a court motion to limit it. Wheelis said he was suspending Andersen’s order until he made a final decision.
Prosecutor Jennifer Clark said that giving Standingrock and Pierce law library access — against the set policies of the jail — would “open the floodgates” to requiring that all of the roughly 400 inmates at the jail — rather than just the around a dozen who are representing themselves — would be required to be allowed access. With only one computer terminal, Clark said that was something the jail couldn’t accommodate.
At the conclusion of Wednesday's hearing, Wheelis said he would consider all arguments and issue a ruling soon. Pierce and Standingrock have further court hearings set in December.