A Missoula County District Court Judge will rule later this year whether a Stevensville woman convicted in a fatal hit-and-run should get a new trial.
Katie Garding was convicted in 2011 of hitting Bronson Parsons with her vehicle in 2008 near East Missoula, killing the 25-year-old man. Garding was sentenced to 40 years in prison. But in 2015, with the help of the Montana Innocence Project, she filed to have her conviction overturned, which would pave the way for a new trial.
At the end of Tuesday’s hearing, District Court Judge John Larson said both the Innocence Project as well as county prosecutors will be able to submit further court filings before he will rule on Garding’s request.
No specific dates were set for the sides to file their follow-ups, although Larry Mansch — legal director for the Montana Innocence Project — said it will likely take weeks at least for a court transcript to be prepared by Larson’s court reporter.
Garding’s argument for a new trial revolved around three primary issues:
• that evidence was withheld from her defense team at the criminal trial,
• that her attorney did a very poor job of defending her at trial, and
• that a reconstruction of the crash commissioned by the Montana Innocence Project concluded that the style of vehicle she was driving would not have caused the specific injuries Parsons suffered.
Before the two-day trial to hear arguments began, Larson had already ruled that the evidence was not withheld, and that the crash reconstruction could not be used as new evidence of innocence by Garding. On the latter issue, the judge sided with the prosecution’s view that it was simply new analysis rather than previously unavailable information.
The second part of the judge’s ruling in particular significantly limited testimony from the witnesses the Montana Innocence Project brought this week.
On Tuesday, crash investigator David Rochford — who was hired to do an analysis of the crash — was only able to testify that if Garding’s defense attorney at the criminal trial called him, he could have prepared such an analysis for her, and that its results would have been favorable to Garding.
Keith Friedman, a researcher from Texas who also examined the case for the Montana Innocence Project, similarly was able to share little other than that to his knowledge, no scientifically based reconstruction of the crash was done before Garding’s criminal trial.
The pair’s testimony was given in part to show the Montana Innocence Project’s claim that the public defense attorney who represented Garding was negligent in not obtaining a crash reconstruction to refute the prosecution’s view on what happened the night of Parsons’ death.
But the standard for attorney negligence leading to a case being overturned requires that it be shown that the outcome of the case would likely be different if the attorney had done a better job.
Innocence Project attorney Toby Cook said without the ability to say what the analysis would have shown if it had been commissioned for the criminal trial, there was no way to show the outcome would have been different.
Montana Highway Patrol Trooper Philip Smart, who is also now the traffic homicide investigator for the Missoula district, was brought in after Garding filed to have her conviction overturned to review the crash reports for the prosecution.
He said Tuesday that while he could make approximations to certain factors — such as where Parsons was hit and a range of speeds the vehicle that hit him was likely traveling — in his opinion there was not enough evidence to do a complete crash reconstruction.