(This story is reprinted with the permission of Lee Newspapers.)
HELENA — A young man shot and killed himself after a 21-hour standoff with Havre police three weeks ago, and it got barely a notice in the statewide press.
Yet this young man — Robert Thomas, a former prison inmate who had “absconded” during his parole — wasn’t just any young man.
He was the central figure in a twisting and often tragic saga that began 12 years ago in the Missoula Juvenile Detention Facility, when Thomas and several other juvenile inmates accused another kid — 17-year-old Cody Marble — of raping Thomas in the jail shower room.
Marble, now 29, has said from the beginning the accusation was entirely made up, to extract some juvenile jailhouse revenge for a perceived slight. A jury, however, chose to believe his accusers, and he was convicted of rape in 2002 and sent to prison.
Marble, who’s in prison after violating his parole with unrelated drug charges, has been trying ever since to undo that conviction, to no avail. The closest he came was in 2010, when the Montana Innocence Project approached Thomas, in prison, and convinced him to sign a statement taking back his trial testimony, saying he was not raped by Marble, and that it was all a fiction.
A few months later, however — after Thomas was told by Missoula County Attorney Fred Van Valkenburg he would be prosecuted for perjury if he lied during Marble’s 2002 trial — Thomas changed his story again.
He disavowed his recantation, said the Innocence Project badgered him into doing it, and said Marble had indeed raped him in the detention center shower room, back in March 2002.
Marble still had a hearing on whether he should get a new trial, based on Thomas’ recantation, but at that October 2012 hearing, Thomas — handcuffed and dressed in jail coveralls — testified under oath that he had told the truth at the trial, and that Marble had raped him.
A state judge last November rejected Marble’s request for the new trial, saying Thomas’ recantation was of “minimal value.”
Marble’s attorneys have appealed the ruling to the Montana Supreme Court, but with Thomas now dead, his last words about the case are a sworn statement that the rape occurred.
“It has a tremendous effect (on the appeal),” said one of Marble’s lawyers, Colin Stephens of Missoula. “I’m not sure it’s a positive effect. (Thomas) can’t change his sworn testimony.”
Keegan Flaherty, executive director for the Montana Innocence Project, said last week the group is evaluating the case, in the wake of Thomas’ death, but would have nothing more to say now.
“It’s a tragedy, and we’re assessing how it’s impacting our case,” she said.
Thomas, who was 25, had been in prison for statutory rape, for having sex with an underage girl. He was paroled late last year, but in January, he didn’t report to his parole officer in Cut Bank and disappeared.
Then, on the night of April 6, Havre police pulled him over for a traffic violation. He got out and ran, and, when cornered near a bank, pulled out a pistol. Havre police talked to Thomas for 21 hours before he fatally shot himself in the abdomen.
Police said Thomas kept saying he didn’t want to go back to jail. They told him he wouldn’t go to jail for anything he’d done that night or day — but they didn’t know he was a parole violator. He’d given them a fake name.
Further details on the standoff, or what Thomas said during those 21 hours, aren’t yet available. The state Justice Department is examining police reports and other evidence and will turn over its investigative report to local authorities, who will conduct an inquest on Thomas’ death.
Marble’s father, Jerry Marble, said last week that Thomas’ death is just the latest tragic turn in a case that never should have happened.
“It’s very sad,” he said. “Three of those kids (who accused Marble) are dead now. … The ones that aren’t dead, except for one, have all gone to prison. I just think it’s very sad that it would come to this. …
“I do know that (Thomas) tried to come clean — when you read those Innocence Project reports, those letters that he wrote to them. He tried to come clean.”