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Montana AG candidate reverses course in death penalty case, no reason given

Montana AG candidate reverses course in death penalty case, no reason given

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A county attorney running for Montana attorney general has said he will no longer seek the death penalty in a deliberate homicide case.

Roosevelt County Attorney Austin Knudsen told the Montana Supreme Court on Friday he is withdrawing intent to pursue the death penalty against Clovis Geno. Geno, 55, is charged in the January strangulation death of his girlfriend, Ramona Hilton Naramore, 62.

In August, defense attorneys asked the state’s high court to step in and take the death penalty off the table as a potential sentencing option. The defense argued the lower court was making a legal error in letting the case proceed as a death penalty case.  

Knudsen’s response did not explain why he was reversing his decision to seek the death penalty. It stated only that the defense request for Supreme Court intervention was now moot.

Geno’s attorneys, Greg Rapkoch and Alisha Backus of the Office of the State Public Defender, had twice asked the lower court to strike the death penalty as a possible sentence and twice been denied.

They’d argued state law and a Montana Supreme Court rule together lay out specific requirements for prosecutors to follow in death penalty cases that Knudsen had not followed.

The Montana Supreme Court ordered both the lower court and the prosecutor to respond.

Judge David Cybulski, of the 15th Judicial District, said his orders allowing Knudsen to seek the death penalty should stand.

Part of the defense argument was that Montana's penalty enhancement law required prosecutors to specify from the outset why the case warranted the death penalty. 

In response, Cybulski said only that there was no such legal requirement but did not discuss the penalty enhancement law. 

The judge also said he ordered prosecutors to supply the information in a later filing "in the interest of justice" and that they did. 

The state has specific requirements for defense attorneys in death penalty cases, including having a certain amount of legal education on capital punishment, experience in homicide cases, and having a limited workload that allows for enough time to be spent on the client facing the death penalty.

As of Aug. 18, the Office of the State Public Defender had spent $49,979 on Geno’s defense. The case was filed Feb. 18.

The office was unable to provide a comparison point. It does not track averages for deliberate homicide cases where the death penalty is not being sought.

Early on in the case, Cybulski, the district court judge, issued a gag order barring attorneys from making extra-judicial statements to the media.

Defense attorneys had asked for the order, citing concerns that their client get a fair trial and noting that Knudsen, a candidate for attorney general, had been posting about the case publicly on his personal Facebook page.

Knudsen, a Republican, is partway through his first term as Roosevelt County attorney. He was elected to the position in 2018. 

Democratic nominee Raph Graybill is Gov. Steve Bullock's chief legal counsel, a job he's held since 2017. Bullock is term-limited and running for U.S. Senate. 

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