A man linked by DNA evidence to the rape of a child in 1987 cannot be tried in the case, the Montana Supreme Court ruled on Thursday.
Ronald Dwight Tipton had asked the state’s high court to order charges against him dismissed based on the statute of limitations and the retroactive clauses of the U.S. and Montana constitutions.
Yellowstone County prosecutors charged him in 2015 with three counts of sexual intercourse without consent after the state’s DNA bank got a positive hit on evidence from the decades-old case.
But in a unanimous ruling issued Thursday, the Montana Supreme Court ordered charges against Tipton dismissed.
“The crime against L.T. more than thirty years ago was, and remains, a horrific, morally repugnant act that the people of Montana expect will be punished for the protection of the victim and society,” read the opinion, written by Justice Beth Baker. “The State’s case against the alleged perpetrator is strong, and the scientific evidence is compelling.”
But, the justices said, the Constitution’s Supremacy Clause required them to apply a 2003 U.S. Supreme Court ruling barring the government from bringing new charges against a defendant once the state's statute of limitations has expired.
The Montana Department of Justice plans to challenge the ruling at the U.S. Supreme Court, said spokesman Eric Sell.
The case stems from the night of March 20, 1987, when a man climbed through the bathroom window of a Billings home, went upstairs and raped an 8-year-old three times.
A Billings teenager, Jimmy Ray Bromgard, was convicted of the crime and spent nearly 15 years in prison before DNA evidence exonerated him in 2002. He later sued the state and got a $3.5 million settlement.
Tipton had not been connected to the case until 2014 when a DNA sample he submitted as part of a drug possession case in Meagher County matched evidence from the rape case.
Under Montana law, charges would have needed to be filed by 2001, according to a synopsis of the ruling.
Tipton’s attorney, Robert Stephens of Billings, applauded the ruling.
“Well, it shows a great deal of judicial integrity, because that decision was not necessarily a popular decision,” Stephens said. “But it demonstrates the ability of our court to sustain important constitutional principles.”
Stephens said he’d spoken with Tipton Thursday morning and that Tipton was “relieved.”
Tipton, a resident of White Sulphur Springs, is disabled due to a mental condition and not currently employed, according to his attorney.
In a series of articles by Lee Montana in 2017, Linda Glantz came forward as the victim in the 1987 case.
Glantz said it was “infuriating” that Tipton could go unpunished despite the DNA match on the crime from 30 years earlier.
Reached Thursday, Glantz said she was disappointed, but that the ruling had not been a "complete surprise."
"My life is going to go on day to day, just like it always has been," she said. "I’m happy his name is out there, I’m happy my story is out there, and I just wish it would have turned out different."
Yellowstone County Attorney Scott Twito, who prosecuted the case until it was handed off to the Montana Attorney General's Office for arguments before the state's high court, echoed Glantz's disappointment.
"Obviously I respect the court's decision," he said. "I'm disappointed in the court's decision, but I respect it."