The Montana Supreme Court ruled Wednesday to uphold the homicide conviction of Markus Kaarma, who killed a 17-year-old German exchange student in Missoula.
Following a trial in December 2014, a jury convicted Kaarma of deliberate homicide for killing Diren Dede, who was shot after entering Kaarma’s Grant Creek garage in April 2014, apparently looking to steal alcohol.
In February 2015, Kaarma was sentenced to 70 years in prison and won't be eligible for parole for 20 years.
Kaarma appealed to the high court in late 2015, alleging that the jury was given unfair instructions on the use of force for self defense, that one potential juror should have been removed because she had a relationship to law enforcement, and that testimony that should have been excluded was allowed at trial.
In an opinion written by Chief Justice Mike McGrath, the state Supreme Court refused all but one of Kaarma’s claims, and said even though the lower court made a mistake in allowing testimony from a Missoula police detective, the error was not enough to overturn the conviction.
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Nate Holloway, Kaarma’s attorney, had taken issue in the appeal with testimony from detective Guy Baker, who talked about blood spatter patterns found in the garage. Holloway said Baker should have been disclosed as an expert witness to allow him to hire a similar expert to refute the testimony.
“Baker’s descriptions of high-velocity versus low-velocity blood spatter were expert testimony,” McGrath wrote in his opinion. “The District Court abused its discretion by allowing Baker to testify in this manner.”
However, McGrath said Baker’s opinions lined up with the findings from experts on the defense and prosecution, and was not central to the issue of whether Kaarma’s actions were deliberate homicide.
“There was no reasonable possibility that the inadmissible evidence might have contributed to a conviction,” the chief justice wrote.
Kaarma also claimed that because of significant public and media attention, the trial should have been moved out of the city.
And, in briefs to the Montana Supreme Court, Holloway said Missoula County District Court Judge Ed McLean did not tell the jury to consider burglary as a forcible felony. Under the law regarding the defense of an occupied structure, deadly force is allowed if the occupant is subject to bodily harm or believes he or she is in danger of harm, or to prevent a forcible felony.
Holloway argued Kaarma was defending his household when he shot into his garage where Dede was, and shouldn’t have had to also prove he was defending himself. The statute regarding self defense only allows the response to be proportional to the harm or threat.
The Supreme Court's opinion said Kaarma argued he shot into the garage after hearing a “metal on metal” sound that made him fear for his life, and that the jury instructions reflected that. In addition, McGrath said Kaarma’s own defense team withdrew a proposal at trial to call burglary a forcible felony.
Kaarma’s attorney also had claimed one of the members of the jury pool should have been removed by the judge because she was related to a former law enforcement officer, had known the detective in the case since he was a child, and said she was more likely to believe an officer’s version of events than Kaarma’s. She also said she felt she could be fair, and McGrath’s opinion said McLean was in the best position to decide if her answers during jury selection were credible.
Holloway eventually used one of the defense team’s challenges to remove the woman from the jury panel. Under state law a new trial could be granted if a review concluded that the defense was forced to use up its challenges on someone the judge should have removed.
The Supreme Court acknowledged widespread media attention, but said it was not enough to prejudice a potential jury against Kaarma.
“(E)xtensive publicity alone is not sufficient. Informed jurors are not biased jurors,” McGrath wrote in his opinion. “The nature of the media coverage was not so inflammatory or sensational that community sentiment was against him to the extent an unbiased jury could not be found.”
Finally, Holloway had claimed that testimony about a prior assault by Kaarma against his partner Janelle Pflager shouldn’t have been allowed at trial.
“Kaarma elicited specific testimony from Pflager about his good character, he was the family’s protector. The state then had the right to present other character evidence to rebut it,” McGrath wrote.