In a 4-3 ruling, the Montana Supreme Court found that Ravalli County District Judge James Haynes was wrong to deny a defendant’s request to release a video-recorded interview with the victim in a 2013 attempted homicide case.
The court also ordered Haynes to determine appropriate sanctions against County Attorney Bill Fulbright's office for committing discovery abuse at the trial of Jody Jake Pope.
A jury found Pope guilty in 2014 of felony assault with a weapon for hitting a woman hard enough with his van to knock off both her shoes and break several ribs.
Pope was acquitted on a charge of attempted deliberate homicide.
The videotaped statement in question was taken by a county attorney investigator just before the 48-year-old woman was set to testify in the case.
According to court records, the woman had written a letter earlier to the district court stating that Pope had not hit her and she wasn’t afraid of him.
But the woman told the investigator during the video-recorded interview that she had a “bad broken rib” from the incident and that she had attempted to get out of the path of the van being driven by Pope.
Deputy County Attorney Thorin Geist told Pope’s counsel, Jennifer Streano, about the recorded interview shortly before the woman was about to testify.
Streano brought the issue to Haynes’ attention, asked the state to produce the video and allow her some time to review it before the woman testified. Geist objected to that request.
Haynes ultimately denied Streano’s request to view the video on grounds that it did not contain exculpatory evidence and the recorded interview may be a “work product.”
After the woman testified, Streano told the court that she was caught “completely off guard” by the woman’s testimony, which Streano claimed had changed 180 degrees.
In his majority opinion, Justice James Jeremiah Shea noted that the state conceded on appeal that it was required to produce the recorded interview of the alleged victim upon Pope’s request.
"There is no question, therefore, that the District Court erred when it denied Pope’s request that the State be ordered to produce it," Shea wrote.
In his dissent, Justice Jim Rice said the woman was the alleged victim of an intra-relational crime of violence. It included the not-uncommon occurrence of a victim recanting her original report and providing inconsistent statements about the incident.
Right up to the time of her testimony, Rice wrote it was uncertain what she would say. Ultimately, she offered testimony that was similar to her original report.
“The jury assessed (the woman’s) conflicting statements and rejected the most serious charge against Pope, attempted deliberate homicide,” Rice wrote. “I do not believe Pope was prejudiced under the circumstances and would not remand this matter to the District Court for consideration of discovery sanctions.”