GREAT FALLS — A Montana judge has dismissed a deliberate homicide charge against a man who spent 15 years in prison for a killing he said he didn't commit.
The charge against Richard Burkhart, 38, was dismissed last week after Cascade County prosecutors said they did not have enough evidence to convict Burkhart of killing William Ledeau with a hammer in November 2001, the Great Falls Tribune reported .
"I have been waiting for this moment for many, many years," Burkhart said in a statement released Wednesday by the Montana Innocence Project. "I am looking forward to spending the rest of my life as a free man."
Larry Mansch, legal director of the innocence project, said Burkhart will soon have a parole hearing on a separate criminal mischief conviction stemming from the time he has been in prison.
While investigating the killing case in 2015, the Montana Innocence Project found evidence that someone in juvenile detention reported — shortly after Burkhart's 2002 trial — that his cellmate had confessed to his role in killing Ledeau.
Project lawyers also talked with a witness who acknowledged lying when he testified that he saw Burkhart kill Ledeau.
District Judge John Kutzman vacated Burkhart's conviction in November 2016 and ordered a new trial.
Prosecutors re-filed the charge but while they continued to investigate they ran into some obstacles, Cascade County Attorney Josh Racki wrote in his Dec. 28 motion to dismiss.
Witnesses' memories were not as clear as they once were, evidence was not logged and kept as it should have been, and modern forensic testing of evidence "was unable to yield additional relevant or probative data," he said.
Prosecutors did not believe they could prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt.
The investigation will continue and there are no other suspects, said Racki, adding that he did not believe the reported jailhouse confession. The dismissal does not preclude charges from being re-filed against Burkhart, Kutzman said.
It was the third successful case for the Montana Innocence Project in the past two years.
Richard Raugust's conviction for the 1997 killing of his best friend in Trout Creek was overturned in December 2015, while Cody Marble's conviction for a 2002 rape in a juvenile detention center was overturned in January 2017.