THOMPSON FALLS – The fate of a man who has spent more than 17 years in the Montana State Prison for a murder he has always denied committing is in the hands of state District Court Judge Jim Wheelis.

Testimony in a new evidence hearing for Richard Raugust, which was expected to spill over into Friday, instead wrapped up late Thursday afternoon in the Sanders County Courthouse after the state called only two witnesses.

Wheelis did not indicate when he would rule on Raugust’s request for a new trial.

Raugust, now 48, was convicted of deliberate homicide in 1998 for the shooting death of his best friend, Joseph Tash.

If a new trial is granted, it would be up to Sanders County Attorney Bob Zimmerman whether to re-file the charge against Raugust. Zimmerman was not county attorney when Raugust was prosecuted in 1998.

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The Montana Innocence Project has taken up Raugust’s case, and presented evidence it says implicates the only eyewitness to the murder as the real killer.

That eyewitness, Rory Ross, pleaded the Fifth Amendment after being called to the stand on Wednesday, and indicated he would plead the Fifth to any question asked him.

The Montana Innocence Project also offered new affidavits it says “disprove” the prosecution’s timeline of events on the morning of July 24, 1997, when Tash was shot in the head and his camper-trailer set on fire.

Another affidavit from a former Sanders County Sheriff’s deputy said the deputy saw a car Ross was driving stop, and the dome light come on, after it left a Trout Creek bar the night before the murder – a subject that never came up when he testified in 1998.

Raugust has always maintained he was never at the murder scene the night Tash was shot; that he had exited Ross’s car and spent the night in Trout Creek because he had to work the next morning.

When deputies arrested Raugust while he was at work painting a house several hours after Tash was killed, witnesses described Raugust as “bewildered” and “dumbfounded.”

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Among those testifying Thursday was Dan Yarmey, an expert in ear-witness identification. In 1998, two witnesses testified they heard Raugust’s voice coming from a campfire where Ross said he, Tash and Raugust partied after the Naughy Pine Saloon closed.

Ross maintained that Raugust killed Tash after the two argued about drugs.

Yarmey said the voice identification that placed Raugust at the scene should be viewed by the court with “extreme caution.” The “ear witnesses” had ID’d Raugust’s voice among “whooping and hollering” coming from a campfire 100 yards away where music was also being played.

The defense’s final witness, who testified by phone, was John Putikka of Bethel, Alaska.

Putikka was Raugust’s attorney in 1998, and he confirmed that new evidence offered this week was not available for him to use at trial, and some backed up the timeline he had presented to jurors.

Zimmerman called two witnesses when the defense had finished: a current Sanders County Sheriff’s deputy who took the 9-1-1 call from Rory Ross in 1997, and Mary Shea, Raugust’s sister, who was questioned about a private investigator the family had hired.

Raugust’s case is one of three being actively litigated by the Montana Innocence Project. The others involve Cody Marble, who was convicted of raping a fellow juvenile inmate while both were incarcerated in the Missoula County Detention Facility, and Robert Wilkes, who was convicted of shaking his 3-month-old son to death.

The Innocence Project says Marble’s accuser has recanted the rape accusation four separate times, and their investigation of the Wilkes’ incident uncovered new evidence of a rare, lethal liver disease and it, not trauma, was the cause of the death of Wilkes’ son.

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