By Patrick Winderl/Havre Daily Newsemail@example.com
A jury acquitted a Havre man of a felony drug charge Monday night. Byron Keith Wright, 49, who has two prior convictions for selling methamphetamine, was found not guilty of criminal distribution of dangerous drugs.
If he had been convicted, Wright faced maximum penalties of life in prison and a $50,000 fine. He also would have been charged as a persistent felony offender, which carries up to 100 additional years in prison, Hill County Attorney David Rice said.
The drug charge stemmed from an incident in July of 2001. The Tri-Agency Task Force accused Wright of selling meth to a police informant.
Jurors deliberated for just over an hour Monday before returning the verdict. Wright, who had remained impassive during the one-day trial, turned around in his chair at the defense table and grinned at his family as the verdict was read.
The bailiff allowed Wright to converse briefly with his relatives before taking him into custody to return to the Hill County Detention Center. He will be transferred to Montana State Prison to serve the remainder of his sentence on the previous drug charges.
Rice said he respected the jury's decision.
"Obviously they had some reasonable doubt," he said. "That's the way it goes."
The credibility of a key prosecution witness may have affected the jury's decision, Rice said.
The witness, a convicted drug dealer and burglar, testified that he purchased two grams of meth from Wright while under surveillance by the task force and the FBI.
The witness testified that he was working as an informant with the intention of receiving leniency for pending drug, theft and burglary charges.
Task force agent Jerry Nystrom testified that law enforcement equipped the informant with a secret listening device and $260 in cash. Narcotics agents parked near the residence on Second Street as he purchased the drugs, Nystrom said.
The informant testified that he was in the bedroom of the residence with Wright, and that Wright sold him the meth.
The transaction was audio recorded, and Rice played the recording during the trial. Static interference made some parts of the eight-minute recording difficult to understand, though the informant can be heard clearly toward the end of the tape.
"Pretty good stuff or what?" he asked.
"How much for two grams?" he asked.
"I'll take two, then," the informant said.
Nystrom conceded under cross-examination by defense attorney Carl White that agents were parked around the corner from the residence and did not actually see the informant enter the house. It was possible the informant went to a different residence and lied about where he bought the drugs, Nystrom said.
Agents never saw Wright at the house, and were relying on the informant's testimony that the second voice on the tape belonged to Wright, Nystrom said.
Nystrom said that agents did not get a search warrant for the home or an arrest warrant for Wright, although probable cause existed for both. The task force did not want to compromise ongoing drug investigations, Nystrom said.
White also questioned the quantity of drugs that the informant gave to agents after the drug buy. The informant testified that he purchased two grams of meth, a statement that is consistent with what is heard on the audio recording.
Nystrom testified that when he weighed the meth the informant gave agents after the buy, it was 0.47 grams. It was possible the informant hid part of the meth he purchased inside the house before returning to the task force vehicle, Nystrom said.
Using informants who are drug users is against task force policy, Nystrom said.
White told the jury in his closing argument that the state's case was totally dependent on the word of the informant. He attacked the informant's credibility.
"Jerry Nystrom wouldn't trust (the informant) with his wallet. But he wants you to trust him with this man's life," he said, pointing to Wright. "All they have is this man's name from the mouth of a man you can't trust."
Jurors said after the trial they did not believe the state provided enough evidence for a conviction.
"I thought they could have made a better case," said juror Leota Hanson. "The investigation came up short."