POLSON – Makueeyapee Whitford’s deliberate homicide trial comes down to a split-second decision, his attorney told jurors during opening arguments Tuesday morning in a Lake County murder trial.
Whitford’s choice, said attorney Jennifer Streano of the Montana Public Defenders Office, was to “either defend himself or become the victim.”
The Browning man is charged with deliberate homicide in the stabbing death of 26-year-old John Pierre Jr. during an after-hours party in Polson on March 16, 2013.
Prosecutors allege that Whitford, who apparently knew only one other person at a party attended by 50 to 80 people, was belligerent with other guests prior to stabbing Pierre near the base of Pierre’s neck with a small folding knife at approximately 4 a.m.
The blow nicked Pierre’s aorta and pulmonary artery and caused Pierre to bleed to death internally, according to court documents.
The defense says Whitford was attacked after Pierre asked Whitford about his tribal affiliation and – after Whitford confirmed he was Blackfeet – “Immediately John Pierre goes into the history of bad blood between the tribes,” Streano said.
“You know the Blackfeet and Salish-Kootenai are sworn enemies,” Streano says Pierre told Whitford.
“Makueeyapee says, ‘That’s back in the day – I’m not about that,’ but John Pierre is getting hostile,” Streano continued.
Whitford walked away, she said, and was closing the trunk of the car he had arrived in “when he sees guys coming out of the house, and coming fast,” Streano told the jury of eight women and four men. “He shuts the trunk, is shoved up against the car,” and “one punch, one strike, that’s it, just to give him time to get in the car and go.”
But Lake County Attorney Mitch Young told jurors, “There are a number of things Mr. Whitford will try to claim,” but the facts will show “he stabbed and killed John Pierre” and “he was not defending himself or anyone else.”
Streano said Whitford was invited to the Flathead Indian Reservation by his friend Adrian Afterbuffalo, a former Polson resident. Whitford brought his wife and two children and they went shopping and to lunch on March 15.
The two men went by themselves later, to bars in Ronan and Pablo, and eventually wound up at the South Shore Inn in Polson, where they were invited to the party at a house located south of St. Joseph Medical Center.
At the party, “Makueeyapee is the clear outsider,” Streano said. “Everybody else knows each other, is related or grew up together. He’s in an area he doesn’t know, with people he doesn’t know.”
So Whitford opened the trunk of the car, where the car stereo speakers are located, picked up a small folding knife that’s there to work on speaker wires, and put it in his pocket, his attorney said.
“He goes into the house, sees a group of people, comes up, and makes a comment he meant to be humorous,” Streano said. “ ‘Hey, where’s all the Blackfeet at?’ He quickly realizes this was not the thing to say.”
Whitford is told that “people get jumped for that,” Streano said, so he showed his knife and tells them, “I hope you don’t think you’re going to jump me.”
The knife was “tiny,” Streano said, with a “2-inch blade.”
“They all pull bigger knives,” Streano went on, “so he walks away, and goes to see if Adrian is ready to go.”
Afterbuffalo and Carmellia Kenmille were sitting in the car talking and listening to music, court documents say.
Whitford spoke to Afterbuffalo in Blackfeet, which caught Pierre’s ear and began the conversation that led to the alleged attack, followed by the stabbing, Streano said.
Afterbuffalo will tell jurors that he heard the trunk close, felt the car move like someone had been pushed against it, then saw Whitford jump in the back seat and heard him yell, “Go, go, go! They’re trying to pile me!” according to Streano.
The word “pile” means being jumped by a large group, Streano explained.
Afterbuffalo looked in his rearview mirror and so many people were descending on them, the attorney went on, that he could no longer see the lights of the house.
“He floors it,” she said while another guest, Derek Hewankorn, used his own knife to slash one of the tires as the vehicle was leaving.
A Polson police officer later located a car with a flat rear tire at a Polson motel. Officers found Whitford in the room with his family. He denied being at the party or stabbing anyone, but eyewitnesses soon identified him.
According to Streano, police botched the investigation of the stabbing and ignored evidence that pointed to self-defense.
She said witnesses were allowed to continue drinking and talking among themselves after officers arrived, and were often interviewed together, which affects what witnesses say to police.
“They were not separated until 3 1/2 hours later,” Streano told jurors. “They all had knives, but nobody was searched. The scene was not protected or secured, and people were walking through where it took place.”
More than five hours after the stabbing, “they see a random knife on top of a vehicle – but not one person asks where it came from, or whose car it’s on,” she said. The knife was tested for blood, “but not for fingerprints or DNA to determine who was holding it.”
“Officers themselves admit mistakes were made,” Streano went on. “One felt so strongly, he wrote a letter to his supervisor.”
Prosecutors, meantime, say witnesses told police Pierre became upset after Afterbuffalo and Kenmille turned down the music they were listening to.
The victim approached the vehicle and loudly asked, “Where the (expletive) did the music go?” according to charging documents. Hewankorn told them he then saw Whitford approach Pierre.
“The defendant – who had been belligerent with several other individuals at the party earlier in the night – raised his arm toward Pierre,” documents allege. “Hewankorn heard a thump and saw the defendant strike Pierre in the neck or upper chest. Then, as Hewankorn watched, the defendant closed the folding knife in his hands.”
When Hewankorn saw blood on the victim, the documents continued, he realized Pierre had been stabbed and not hit.
The trial, presided over by District Court Judge James Manley, is expected to last approximately seven days.