The state's highest court ruled Thursday that James Gene Martin was properly convicted of multiple charges stemming from the 1998 shooting that left Missoula Police Sgt. Bob Heinle a quadriplegic.
The Montana Supreme Court unanimously upheld the convictions of Martin for attempted deliberate homicide and assault. The justices split 4-3 in upholding Martin's convictions for escape and burglary, but overturned a fifth conviction for felony theft that accused Martin of stealing Heinle's revolver after shooting the officer.
"We're delighted," said Deputy Missoula County Attorney Karen Townsend after learning of the Supreme Court ruling. "We felt we had done everything properly and correctly and we are pleased the Supreme Court agreed with our position."
Townsend, who prosecuted the case along with Missoula County Attorney Fred Van Valkenburg, said she was not too upset over the felony theft conviction being overturned.
"We will take the theft ruling in light of everything else," she said.
Margaret Borg, Missoula's chief public defender who represented Martin during his trial and filed the appeal, was out of town Thursday and unavailable for comment.
Martin was convicted in May of 1999 during a trial that was moved to Butte due to pre-trial publicity. District Judge John Henson sentenced Martin, who was 20 at the time, to life in prison without parole.
Heinle was shot on Oct. 21, 1998 after responding to a report of a young man trying to cash a forged check at Western Security Bank at the corner of West Broadway and Orange Street. When Martin spotted Heinle he ran across West Broadway to a parking lot next to the Salvation Army Thrift Store, pulled out a .380-caliber pistol and fired two shots at Heinle. The first shot missed, but the second shot hit Heinle in the shoulder, severing his spinal cord.
Martin then took Heinle's gun and ran. He was arrested about 30 minutes later in a nearby alley after pointing a pistol at Missoula Sheriff's Deputy Pat Turner.
In his appeal, Martin challenged all but a conviction for felony forgery. He argued that the attempted murder verdict should be overturned because the jury did not have enough evidence to prove he tried to kill Heinle. Martin also alleged that prosecutorial misconduct during closing arguments may have deprived him of receiving a fair trial.
But the justices ruled that Martin had fired two shots at Heinle and previously bragged that he would shoot anyone who got in his way, including a police officer. The court also ruled that while Van Valkenburg may have erred in talking about sentencing during closing remarks, it was not enough to unduly influence the jury's verdict.
"We have determined that there was sufficient evidence to support the jury's guilty verdicts," wrote Chief Justice Karla Gray. "Having reviewed the record, and in light of all the surrounding circumstances, including the context in which the remarks were made, we hold that Martin has not established prejudice resulting from the sentencing-related remark made by the prosecutor during rebuttal closing arguments."
In an interesting sidelight, the court also ruled that Martin could be convicted of escape if he flees from police after committing a crime and ignores orders to stop. Martin had argued that he could not be convicted of escape because he was never in "official detention" prior to his arrest.