HELENA, Montana — The Montana Supreme Court has upheld a lower-court ruling granting a new trial for a man charged in the July 2005 beating death of a former chairman of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes and suppressing his confession about his involvement in the crime.
Clifford Oldhorn was convicted in 2011 of deliberate homicide in the death of Harold Mitchell Jr., 73, and sentenced to 100 years in prison. He appealed, arguing statements that he made to investigators shouldn't have been used against him because he believed he had immunity. He moved to exclude his statements before trial, but the judge denied the motion without holding an evidentiary hearing.
The Supreme Court returned the case to district court in November 2012 for the hearing, after which District Judge C.B. McNeil vacated the conviction, ordered a new trial and excluded Oldhorn's statements from evidence.
"Without (Clifford Oldhorn's) statements, and without other evidence, it wouldn't be practical to attempt to re-try him," Deputy Lake County Attorney Jessica Cole-Hodgkinson told the Missoulian in February 2013.
The state appealed McNeil's decision.
The Montana Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that a letter from Lake County Attorney Mitch Young explaining the immunity agreement contained legal distinctions that are "not readily apparent even to those trained in the law," and would certainly be unclear to someone with an eighth-grade education.
Young's letter said he would agree not to file charges for any "collateral crimes" committed, but that he would not offer immunity for any "acts which would constitute accountability" for homicide.
Detective Jay Doyle wrote a separate letter saying the prosecutor "did agree to give immunity." Oldhorn received similar assurances at other times, the Supreme Court found.
Oldhorn, who was serving prison time for earlier crimes, told investigators in April 2008 that he was in the house as another man beat Mitchell in an effort to get him to tell them where he kept his money. Mitchell was stabbed, his throat was cut and gasoline was poured on his body and set on fire to destroy evidence of the crime, prosecutors said. Oldhorn named three other suspects.
On April 22, 2010, Mitchell filed a deliberate homicide charge against Oldhorn under the state's felony murder rule, which says a person can be held responsible for the death of someone if it happens during the commission of another felony.
Lake County officers questioned Oldhorn again six days later before informing him that he had been charged. The Supreme Court found the officers "carefully and deliberately avoided contradicting Oldhorn's belief he had been granted immunity."
"We will not condone the use of deception to obtain a confession," Chief Justice Mike McGrath wrote in the 5-0 ruling.
After learning he was charged, Oldhorn quit cooperating with investigators and refused to testify against his three co-defendants. Deliberate homicide charges against them were dismissed.
Oldhorn, who was released from prison following McNeil's February 2013 ruling, was caught drinking two days later and returned to prison for violating his probation for burglary, theft and deceptive-practices charges dating back to January 2005. He is serving a five-year term.