The Montana Innocence Project this week filed its opening brief in the state Supreme Court, where it will make its case for a Stevensville woman convicted of a fatal hit-and-run she claimed to have no part in.
The Innocence Project represents Katie Garding, who has been imprisoned for the last eight years. The Montana Supreme Court upheld her conviction in 2013.
Now the Montana nonprofit, which seeks to overturned convictions of those wrongly incarcerated, is hoping the state Supreme Court will allow its attorneys to introduce evidence that wasn't used by Garding's defense at her 2011 trial, including crash-scene reconstruction data that could give jurors a new perspective.
The collision killed 25-year-old Bronson Parsons, who was walking along Highway 200 on New Year's Day in 2008 in East Missoula. No one was charged with the killing until an inmate at the county jail provided information a year later implicating Garding, who he said was behind the wheel. Garding was charged in 2010, and convicted by jury trial in 2011.
The Innocence Project had spent years building its case on the fact that Garding's original attorney had not sought an expert in crash-scene reconstruction. Had this been done, they argued, those findings would have shown more damage done to Garding's vehicle.
She had been stopped that same day by law enforcement in pursuit of the hit-and-run driver, but she was released then because so little damage was found on her vehicle, according to Monday's filings. Three experts contracted by the Innocence Project found that when compared to a similar vehicle-versus-pedestrian crash from 2005, the theory that Garding's vehicle had killed Parsons "violated the laws of physics and impact mechanics."
Additionally, Garding's attorneys from the Innocence Project say that in 2015 they learned through their investigation that the medical examiner for the state crime lab who testified at her trial had not provided her defense with all of the information it had from the victim's medical examination. The experts who reviewed Garding's case believed that had Parsons been struck by Garding's Chevrolet Blazer, which had a modified and distinctive front bumper, the collision would have been "catastrophic," as opposed to the hairline fracture to his fibula found in the existing medical records.
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Additionally, such a strike would have caused more extensive damage to Garding's windshield, which had not been noted when she was stopped on the day of the crash, her attorneys argue.
Also in question is the testimony from Garding's ex-boyfriend during trial that he was in Garding's car at the time of the hit-and-run. Innocence Project attorneys argue the man was given a lighter sentence in his own case, in which he was facing a persistent felony offender designation, in exchange for his testimony against Garding.
Even at Garding's trial in 2011, public defender Jennifer Streano spent 90 minutes of closing arguments calling witness' testimony either unreliable or motivated by leniency in their own court proceedings, and forensic evidence doubtful and even contradictory, the Missoulian reported then.
In March, Missoula District Judge John Larson sided with prosecutors when he dismissed Garding's petition for a new trial. Larson wrote in his order that the evidence was not new, but rather a different perspective on old evidence.
"Many experts run multiple calculations to arrive at an opinion," Larson wrote. "There is a counter-analysis in this case that supports the finding that (Garding) was responsible."
Monday's filing asks the high court to overturn Larson's decisions and find that Streano was ineffective as counsel for not seeking a crash-reconstruction expert; that the state failed to turn over medical evidence that may have produced a different verdict; and that the Innocence Project's evidence, which experts developed after the trial from evidence available at the time, was "newly discovered."
If the Innocence Project is successful in its appeal, the Supreme Court would send the case back to District Court and potentially put it on a path toward a new trial.