Havre Daily News
CHINOOK - Defense attorneys for convicted killer Laurence Dean Jackson Jr. have filed a motion for a new trial based on an admission made by the prosecution's key witness in the final phase of Jackson's sentencing hearing.
The attorneys say a statement submitted by former Blaine County sheriff's deputy Loren Janis, during which he admitted he needed counseling to free him from the belief that he was responsible for the shooting death of fellow deputy Joshua Rutherford, would have altered their defense strategy at Jackson's trial.
“The state's case is Mr. Janis,” the motion said. “Without him, the case fails. Thus, challenging his credibility was the only way to mount a defense.”
In December, District Judge John McKeon sentenced Jackson to two life terms in prison, plus 100 years, for the slaying of Rutherford and the wounding of Janis on May 29, 2003, in a field near Harlem. A Missoula jury convicted Jackson, 28, in November 2004 of deliberate homicide and attempted deliberate homicide.
During the final portion of sentencing, Blaine County Attorney Yvonne Laird read a statement submitted by Janis. In that statement, Janis admitted that he had begun to believe rumors that he killed Rutherford. “Numerous hours of counseling” and conversations with a close friend freed him from those feelings of guilt, Janis wrote.
“Every person wants to look at someone to blame for Josh, when they need to take a good look at the person who killed him and that is you,” he wrote, referring to Jackson.
Jackson's lawyers - Bob Peterson of Havre and Ed Sheehy Jr. of Helena - say in their motion that the 11th-hour admission was the first time they learned Janis had to seek counseling or speak with friends to clear his conscience. They wrote that Janis' self-blame would have formed the “cornerstone” of their defense. The jury may have cleared Jackson of guilt had it been able to consider that evidence, they wrote.
“Given the seriousness of the evidence Mr. Janis chose not to reveal, the verdict in this case was a sham,” the attorneys wrote.
The prosecution said that after the two deputies responded to a domestic disturbance call involving Jackson,Jackson fatally shot Rutherford after wrestling the deputy's service pistol away from him and then wounded Janis. Laird could not be reached for comment on the defense motion, which was filed Jan. 12. The prosecution has not yet filed a response.
Jackson has maintained that he blacked out that night - after consuming alcohol for much of the day - and does not remember the events that took place in the dark field. The only description of the final moments of Rutherford's life during the trial came from Janis.
During Jackson's trial, Sheehy and Peterson sought to point out inconsistencies between Janis' story and the physical evidence. Janis testified that he watched the struggle between Rutherford and Jackson at close range, and that he did not have his weapon drawn at the time of the shooting.
“Had Mr. Janis's belief about his responsibility for Mr. Rutherford's death been available, Mr. Janis's courtroom description of this traumatic event, so intricately detailed, could have been contrasted with his blame,” the attorneys wrote. “If his story had any truth to it, how could this officer believe he was to blame?
“ ... Mr. Janis somehow started believing he was the one who should be blamed. His willingness to blame himself is absolutely contradictory to his story of how everything unfolded in that field.”
Janis' admission immediately raised questions, Peterson and Sheehy wrote.
“Why would this accuser ever think such a thing? How could such uncertainty arise, given the concrete story this accuser had put forth? Where did this belief come from? When did Mr. Janis's belief he was to blame begin? What did it take for this accuser to get past his belief that he was to blame? And finally, it gave rise to the ultimate question: Who was truly to blame here, Mr. Janis or Mr. Jackson?”
The defense motion cited the testimony of Theresa Petersen, an Indian Health Service nurse who testified at the trial that she overheard Janis asking himself whether he had shot Rutherford. Janis' admission that he had blamed himself for Rutherford's death and sought counseling would have bolstered Peterson's testimony in the eyes of the jury, the attorneys wrote.
The attorneys noted that Janis had failed to mention any counseling or discussion with friends during his deposition, given under oath in April 2004.
His failure to disclose that information shielded the jury from having to decide whether he was correct in blaming himself, the attorneys wrote.
Peterson and Sheehy asked McKeon to “recognize that so many credibility issues exist that combined with Mr. Janis's new revelations, a fresh look at this case with a new jury is warranted.”
This is not the first time Jackson's lawyers have asked for a new trial.
A month after Jackson's conviction, his lawyers filed a motion asking for a new trial, or a dismissal or modification of the deliberate homicide conviction. Sheehy and Peterson wrote that they had three grounds for their request: a “wholly inadequate” jury deliberation, a lack of sufficient evidence proving Jackson caused Rutherford's death, and “contradictions and inconsistencies” in the evidence presented during the trial.
On Nov. 18, McKeon denied the defense's request. In his decision, he wrote that the jury adequately deliberated, that the state provided sufficient evidence to establish beyond a reasonable doubt that Jackson killed Rutherford, and that essential elements of the case supported the verdict.