The double homicide trial that began last week in Missoula County District Court is nearing its end after the defense rested its case on Wednesday, but not before defendant Caressa Hardy tried removing his lead attorney as counsel.
Caressa Hardy, 51 when he was arrested in July 2017, is charged with two counts of deliberate homicide for allegedly killing Thomas Korjack and Robert Orozco four years earlier, and two counts of solicitation for murder for allegedly trying to seek out inmates to kill the key witness in the case.
The Wednesday morning tangle at the defense table, before the jury was let into the courtroom, stemmed from one of the solicitation charges, and the witnesses who testified about it.
"I insist that John Braunreiter be called as a witness," Hardy told the judge Wednesday, referring to one of Hardy's fellow inmates in the Missoula County Detention Center.
Braunreiter was not called to testify. Instead, prosecutors called another inmate who said he heard Hardy offer Braunreiter $20,000 to kill the only person who reported being in the room when Hardy allegedly shot Korjack and Orozco.
Britt Cotter, lead defense attorney in Hardy's case, flatly declined to call Braunreiter, who had written in two different letters to attorneys that Hardy had indeed solicited him to kill Karen Hardy, the defendant's former partner, mother of their three children and key witness in the case.
Braunreiter was reportedly not called to testify because in those same letters he vowed to use the witness stand as a soapbox to talk about his perceived injustices in his own case. Hardy said Braunreiter had since flipped his account of Hardy's alleged solicitation since it was clear prosecutors would not offer Braunreiter any concessions in his own case in exchange for his testimony in Hardy's.
"If we call him as a witness those letters are going to be used," Cotter said. "That's why I don't think it's in your best interest for us to call him."
Judge James Wheelis told Hardy he would rely on Cotter's judgement regarding Braunreiter.
"OK, then I'd like to have Mr. Cotter removed for ineffective counsel," Hardy told Wheelis. "I could go pro se and represent myself. I studied law for 23 years. I'm just not a member of the same club you are, the bar association."
Wheelis wouldn't have it. Since the start of trial, Cotter has lobbed a notable number of objections at testimony in the last seven days and gone to extensive lengths to poke holes in the prosecution's case, even calling for sanctions Tuesday against a detective who had not disclosed making a call to Idaho prosecutors on one inmate's behalf for providing information on the alleged solicitations.
(Detective Jared Cochran testified Tuesday that the call, in which Cochran said he did no more than indicate the inmate had cooperated with police, seemed to bear no significance in the inmate's Idaho case. Wheelis denied the request for a sanction.)
"I've frankly never seen a defense counsel, including myself, work so hard," Wheelis told Hardy. "He's obviously got your interest at heart and mind. The decision is really his."
"So it's his case, not my case?" Hardy snapped back.
"It's your case," Wheelis said.
"Then I should be able to defend myself with the truth," Hardy contended. "It's curious that many facts and truth are not allowed in this courtroom. It's almost appearing to be a court of injustice."
Hardy had been testy Wednesday morning with the judge and the rigidity of the judicial process. In an apparent effort to flex his commitment to judicial order, Hardy claimed the flags in the courtroom were only there "because I ordered it" under a different judge, and "they haven't been here for three and a half years."
Wheelis, once a full-time Missoula judge who came out of retirement in 2017, quashed that notion. "I think they've been here for years," he said.
After the "court of injustice" comment, Hardy didn't argue further to take on the rest of the case himself. Nor did he testify.
The only witness the defense called Wednesday morning was Curtis Alexander, a former cellmate of Anton Orth, who testified earlier this week about Hardy's proposition to Braunreiter. Alexander said Orth had become known in the jail pod for snooping through other inmates' paperwork, scheming ways to leverage a better deal in his case.
Much of Alexander's testimony was shot down by Missoula County prosecutor Brian Lowney, however. Alexander had never seen Orth and Hardy interact, and never directly saw Orth taking paperwork from any other inmates.
Hardy's defense has argued that Korjack and Orozco weren't killed but simply fled the country, Korjack to avoid taxes and Orozco escaping considerable child support payments.
Bone fragments found at a burn site on the property they all shared have never been positively identified.
Prosecutors believe Hardy killed Korjack, a wealthy engineer who was bankrolling the lives of Hardy, Orozco and Karen Hardy, and Orozco because Korjack was going to cut Hardy off financially.
Hardy, once known as Glenn Dibley, was transitioning to a woman when he was arrested in July 2017. Attorneys and witnesses have used the pronouns "he" and "him" when referring to Hardy.
Closing arguments are set for Thursday morning at 9 a.m. in Missoula District Court.