A Whitefish man who has maintained he is innocent of molesting a child since his conviction in 1995 is asking the Flathead County District Court to clear his name.
Dale Hanson, 62, served 10 years in prison for sexual assault and deviate sexual conduct. However, he continues to dispute the judgements against him, and a petition pending in court cites potentially exculpatory evidence withheld from the jury in the trial nearly 20 years ago.
Since 2007, Hanson has been hiding in the Flathead Valley. His refusal to register as a sexual offender has prompted warrants for his arrest, so he remains underground to avoid incarceration and fight a legal battle that’s gone as far as the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.
“I won’t accept anything but complete exoneration,” Hanson said in a recent telephone interview.
The Montana Supreme Court affirmed his conviction in 1997; the U.S. District Court of Appeals denied his petition for writ of habeas corpus in 2006; and then-Gov. Brian Schweitzer declined to issue a pardon in 2012, after a University of Montana law professor applied for clemency on Hanson’s behalf.
“I am convinced that he (Hanson) was wrongfully convicted at a time when hysteria about child sexual assault was at its highest and the protocols for investigating such charges were at their lowest,” lawyer and professor Jeffrey Renz said in the letter.
Renz and the Montana Innocence Project are representing Hanson in his most recent attempt to clear his name. In a petition for post-conviction relief filed in Flathead County District Court, Hanson asked the judge to reverse his earlier convictions and order a new trial – or find him not guilty.
The male identified as the victim in the original case could not be reached for comment. Hanson only spoke with the Missoulian by telephone, never revealing his whereabouts.
In court documents, Hanson makes the case that a jilted girlfriend pledged revenge against him and coaxed her young son into saying Hanson had abused him. The case against him mounted with an “overzealous” detective and a botched investigation; an environment that made acquitting an alleged sexual abuser politically unpalatable; and Hanson’s own naïve belief that his innocence would be his best defense, he said.
In 2006, U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Betty Fletcher, now deceased, wrote that the failure of Hanson’s lawyer to place vindictive voicemails into evidence “may have constituted ineffective assistance of counsel.” In one of the voicemails, the ex-girlfriend threatened she would “get even.”
“Because that plan might have included fabricating charges of child abuse, the tapes, had they been placed into evidence, could have influenced the jury’s decision regarding Hanson’s guilt,” Fletcher wrote. “Hanson’s trial counsel never sought to introduce the messages; under the circumstances, that failure may have constituted ineffective assistance of counsel.”
However, Fletcher also noted a procedural failure meant the court was “unable to untie the Gordian knot.”
Hanson met his girlfriend in 1990 when they were neighbors, and she and her son lived with him for a year and a half at his Whitefish home.
They had a volatile relationship, and finally broke up for the last time in 1994. Afterward, the woman left screaming, expletive-laden voicemails for Hanson, who provided the recordings to the Missoulian. In one, the woman said, “I’m gonna make sure that my life goal is to just prove every single day how much I hate you.”
A short time later, she went to police and said her son told her that Hanson had washed the boy’s private parts, according to the petition for pardon. It said a detective interviewed the boy, and he reported Hanson asked him to perform oral sex.
In the pardon request, Hanson said he, his girlfriend and her son “frequently showered together,” and “a few times,” the boy showered only with Hanson or his mother. In an interview, Hanson said the family did so to save money, and the only time he was alone with the boy was during the brief moments when his girlfriend would exit the bath first.
He adamantly denied that he was involved in any sexually inappropriate behavior, and said he and the boy were victims of her vendetta.
“He knows that I never did anything inappropriate with him. He knows that for a fact because it never happened,” Hanson said.
In a recorded video, letters of support and signed affidavits, more than one dozen character witnesses speak on behalf of Hanson. In sworn statements, two longtime business owners said they warned the detective against trusting testimony from the ex-girlfriend, as she was “violently and jealously upset about her breakup.”
In March 1994, Hanson was arrested.
“It just hit me out of the blue like a bolt of lightning,” Hanson said. “I never saw it coming, never would have believed it in a million years.”
As he describes it, the trial proceedings resembled a kangaroo court:
• The detective who interviewed the child disregarded protocol that called for recording the sessions, and she testified she did not want the interviews to be seen by defense attorneys, his petition says.
• The jury never heard the angry voicemails, including one where Hanson’s ex-girlfriend says, “I’m gonna f’n get even.” “The tape is persuasive evidence that the mother may have fabricated the charges and influenced her son,” reads the court document.
• None of the people who wanted to testify as character witnesses on behalf of Hanson were called to the stand.
In 1995, the jury found Hanson guilty, and he was sentenced to the Montana State Prison.
According to Hanson, his public defender told him after the trial that his hands were tied against mounting a more vigorous defense if he wanted to have a career in Flathead County. Charles Harball is now the Kalispell city attorney, and he denies making such a statement to Hanson.
“It was a real tough case, and it was a very dysfunctional situation (between Hanson and his girlfriend),” Harball said last week.
At the end, Hanson became angry with him and the judge, and the defendant created a conspiracy and even threatened Harball, the city attorney said. He said he doesn’t believe a grand scheme existed to put Hanson in prison, but he does believe “there was some overzealousness at the sheriff’s office at the time.”
Harball said both Hanson and his ex left nasty messages for each other, and placing voicemails into evidence wouldn’t paint anyone in a good light. He also said obtaining a “not guilty” verdict for allegations made by the child was going to be an uphill battle.
“Most of the people looked at a person like that as being a little bit like a monster,” Harball said.
Harball, though, isn’t convinced Hanson is guilty of the crimes, but he does think the man was guilty of bad judgement in dating a “wacky” woman who used her child for her own purpose.
“I think the mother did do a lot to try to plant things in the kid’s head. I think she was capable of doing that,” Harball said.
The woman involved in the case also could not be reached for comment by the Missoulian.
Hanson went to prison in 1995.
According to his petition, he would have had better conditions in confinement had he enrolled in sex offender treatment. “He refused out of principle.” For the same reason, he lost the opportunity to be paroled, although the sentence and review board suspended half his sentence after hearing the recorded phone messages.
Upon his release, Hanson was immediately arrested for refusing to register as a sex offender. After 11 months in jail, his lawyer told him he faced a life behind bars, and Hanson agreed to register – once – with the written caveat he was doing so not as an admission of guilt but to avoid further incarceration.
Cris Coughlin, former council member and Whitefish mayor, is among the friends and advocates who have provided references for Hanson since. She and Hanson became friends in the 1980s because they kayaked and skied with the same group of people.
“I believe in our justice system, but this was not one of our finest hours,” Coughlin said in an interview.
She said Hanson trusted that his innocence guaranteed his acquittal, so instead of hiring a tough lawyer, he used the public defenders.
At the time, she said, witnesses watching the case unfold believed Hanson didn’t get a fair shake in court because the case was politically charged: “They didn’t want to be tarnished in the eyes of the public in letting an alleged sex offender off.”
Professor Renz and the Montana Innocence Project declined to comment on the case, but Hanson provided a video Renz produced with the Criminal Defense Clinic. It includes the voicemails and more than an hour of testimony from friends, business acquaintances and others.
Jerri Swenson testified as a therapist who is familiar with the way the investigation of abuse has evolved, and she visited with the Missoulian. Around the time Hanson was convicted, people were beginning to come out of the closet about their sexual abuse, she said.
“So there were overzealous therapists and overzealous prosecutors looking for sexual abusers under every rock,” Swenson said.
At the time, she said, professionals believed that if a child made an accusation of sexual assault, it was true. Now, she said, it’s clear that some people have repressed memories, but others have been manipulated.
“You can implant memories, and therapists did that a lot back then because the therapist believed sexual abuse occurred,” Swenson said.
Swenson also commented on the practice the then-family of three had of showering together: “Lots of people are inappropriate, but not criminal. It’s different,” she said. “That shows mom’s poor boundaries more than anything. He’s not a parent.”
In August, District Court Judge Robert Allison ordered Hanson to “personally attend a deposition scheduled by the state” and said his failure to do so could result in “dismissal with prejudice of this cause of action.”
In a response, Hanson’s lawyers asked the judge to vacate the order. A court filing from Montana Innocence Project lawyer Larry Mansch describes the state’s request to depose Hanson as a “thinly veiled effort to arrest him and subject him to coercive confinement while his petition is before this court.”
A ruling on the matter is pending in Flathead County District Court.
Hanson’s ex-girlfriend did not respond to a Facebook message and could not be reached by phone. Her son, who was 8 years old when he testified in court, did not return a message left at his work; in a later call, an employee who answered the phone declined to put him on the line.