5 things to know about Bernard Pease Jr.’s case ahead of evidentiary hearing

Client Bernard Pease Jr. (Photo by Sarah Mosquera)

  Montana Innocence Project client Bernard Pease Jr. will have an evidentiary hearing Thursday following a court determination that DNA testing results are favorable. If the court determines there is a reasonable probability that a different outcome at trial could have been reached, possible outcomes include overturning Bernard’s conviction, discharging him from parole, or resentencing him. We will provide a recap of the hearing in next Friday’s email, but for now, check out these five facts about him and his case:  

1. Bernard’s wrongful conviction relies on junk science  

Bernard was wrongfully convicted of the 1984 murder of Maria Philbrick based largely on testimony from former Montana State Crime Lab director Arnold Melnikoff. Among other things, Melnikoff testified that a hair found on a condom in Bernard’s room was consistent with Maria’s. This conclusion was the result of a microscopic hair analysis, which is largely considered a junk science.   Washington state audited Melnikoff’s lab work following the DNA-based exonerations of Jimmy Ray Bromgard, Paul Kordonowy, and Chester Bauer—all Montana cases in which Melnikoff’s hair analysis and expert testimony were used to convict. Additionally, Barry Beach, whose conviction was also based on Melnikoff’s testimony, was granted clemency. In 2015, the FBI, the United States Department of Defense, The Innocence Project, and The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers published a report disqualifying microscopic hair analysis as scientifically valid.   

2. Bernard spent the longest time wrongfully incarcerated of any MTIP client  

MTIP has freed 10 innocent people who collectively spent more than 175 years wrongfully incarcerated; Bernard’s time behind bars was nearly four decades long. He entered prison at 26-years-old and left earlier this year at age 65. Last November, he was granted parole subject to completion of an extended stay in pre-release. He was transferred to the pre-release center in Billings on January 4. Despite being out of prison now, Bernard lives with the reality that he has spent more of his life behind bars than not for a crime he did not commit.  

3. DNA testing was not widely available at the time of Bernard’s conviction  

DNA testing was first used to investigate a crime in the United States in 1987. It was not available to law enforcement when Maria was murdered three years earlier. In addition to microscopic hair analysis, which is now considered junk science, the State used blood type testing to convict Bernard. There were small amounts of blood found in the storage room of the Pease family’s business, and analysts concluded Maria’s blood was the same type. Today, DNA testing can reveal whether someone’s DNA is consistent with an area of interest on an item of evidence. But in 1989, scientists could only confirm blood types.  

MTIP began working on Bernard’s case in 2019. The legal team worked closely with Dr. Greg Hampikian, Boise State University Forensic Justice Project Director and Idaho Innocence Project Co-Director, to identify items of evidence suitable for DNA testing. Next week’s evidentiary hearing was granted following the court’s determination that the results from these tests were favorable. Since 1989, almost 600 innocent people’s convictions were overturned based on DNA testing.  

4. Bernard’s wrongful incarceration cost Montana taxpayers nearly $1.4 million   According to Vera Institute of Justice, it cost $33,578 to incarcerate someone for a year in Montana. The 39 years Bernard was wrongfully convicted based on outdated and junk science cost $1,309,542 using Vera’s calculation.  

5. Bernard is an artist, fisherman, and beloved brother

Bernard’s wrongful conviction may have changed his life forever, but it is not what defines him. Bernard is a talented artist specializing in beadwork; many of his pieces were featured at the Hobby Store in Deer Lodge. Fishing has been his favorite hobby since he was a boy. Bernard grew up fishing the Bighorn River and dreamed of becoming a fishing guide—a goal he hopes to someday still achieve if his health allows.  

Bernard is loved and supported by many, but his biggest advocate is his younger sister Linda. During his wrongful incarceration, Bernard called Linda daily. She works closely with MTIP to ensure Bernard has everything he needs to succeed in pre-release and beyond.