POLSON – The only person convicted in the 7 1/2-year-old murder of a former Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribal chairman could be freed from prison this week pending an appeal in his case.
Clifford Oldhorn will be returned to the Lake County Courthouse Wednesday to have bond set after the Montana Supreme Court sent the case back to a District Court judge, who reversed a prior ruling and then recommended Oldhorn be given a new trial.
The state’s high court then agreed.
Assistant county attorney Jessica Cole-Hodgkinson said Friday prosecutors will appeal Judge C.B. McNeil’s finding last month that Oldhorn’s confession to his part in the murder of 73-year-old Harold Mitchell Jr. was given involuntarily.
The appeal could determine whether anyone is ever held accountable in Mitchell’s grisly death. Homicide charges in the case against three other people Oldhorn allegedly placed in Mitchell’s home the night of the murder were dropped in 2011, after Oldhorn quit cooperating with authorities.
“Without (Oldhorn’s) statements, and without other evidence, it wouldn’t be practical to attempt to retry him,” Cole-Hodgkinson said.
In July of 2005, Mitchell was beaten, stabbed and his throat slashed in his St. Ignatius home in what authorities believe was a robbery attempt. His body was then doused with gasoline and set on fire.
The fire burned much of Mitchell’s home.
With a lack of physical evidence, the case languished for five years until – after others told authorities that Oldhorn had confessed to them – he allegedly confessed to current Lake County Sheriff Jay Doyle and Sheriff’s Lt. Mike Sargeant.
In that confession, Oldhorn – who allegedly told Doyle and Sargeant he was at Mitchell’s home the night Mitchell was murdered, but did not take participate in the killing – implicated three others.
However, Lake County later dismissed without prejudice the deliberate homicide charges it had filed against Nathan Ross, Kyle Brown and Nigel Ernst, based on Oldhorn’s statements.
With no guarantee that Oldhorn would testify against his co-defendants, there wasn’t a good prospect of obtaining convictions, Lake County Attorney Mitch Young said. If Oldhorn refused to answer questions on the witness stand, none of the statements in his alleged confession would be admissible.
There was little a court could do to compel Oldhorn to testify, beyond threats of holding him in contempt and giving him jail time.
“For Clifford, that doesn’t mean much,” Young said at the time. Oldhorn had already been convicted of deliberate homicide and was facing what amounted to a life sentence.
Oldhorn’s appeal indicated the defendant believed he had been granted immunity from prosecution in exchange for his account of what occurred the night Mitchell was murdered, and therefore his confession should have been suppressed.
The state argued it was made clear in writing that immunity extended only to collateral crimes committed during the course of the incident, and specifically ruled out immunity “for any acts which would constitute accountability for the homicide of Mr. Mitchell.”
Oldhorn’s attorney moved to suppress his confession before the 2011 homicide trial. McNeil denied the motion.
When it sent the case back to McNeil, the Supreme Court said only that without an evidentiary hearing to determine the merits of Oldhorn’s motion, it had no way to determine the judge’s rationale for denying it.
McNeil then held such a hearing last month. On Jan. 15, the judge reversed his prior ruling and also recommended Oldhorn be given a new trial.
Oldhorn’s 2011 trial lasted five days. A jury convicted him in 90 minutes, and McNeil sentenced him to 100 years.
Mitchell’s family, Young said, “wasn’t thrilled that three people walked away, but they could take some measure of comfort that one person was made to take responsibility. With this latest twist, we’re concerned he could slip out as well.”
The thought is hard for Mitchell’s family, prosecutors and law enforcement to deal with, Young added.
“For several years, we had no real good suspect or real good leads,” Young said. “There were a lot of rumors, a lot of theorizing in the community, and the sheriff’s office tried to follow up on all that.
“It finally reached a point where we got a suspect. The family was thrilled, and we were excited we had finally got somewhere.”
But with a lack of physical evidence because of the fire, Young said, the cases rested on Oldhorn’s confession.
“When the witness decided he was not going to cooperate, we had no choice but to dismiss the charges” against the other three, Young said. “That left us only able to prosecute Oldhorn.”
After his conviction, Oldhorn’s bond was revoked and he was taken into custody.
Now, with the conviction vacated and a new trial ordered, Wednesday’s hearing will start the process again. Oldhorn is charged with homicide. Cole-Hodgkinson said she will ask for the same $500,000 bail amount McNeil granted the first time. She expects Oldhorn’s attorney will argue for less.
And the new appeal headed for the Supreme Court will determine whether there is another trial.
Even if he is released pending the Supreme Court’s decision, Oldhorn will remain on probation for a 2005 case in which he was convicted on one count each of burglary, theft and deceptive practices.
Then, Oldhorn was sentenced to 30 years, with 25 suspended. He would remain on probation through at least 2035 in that case if he is no longer in prison.
Reach reporter Vince Devlin at 1-800-366-7186 or by email at email@example.com.