Many forensic testing methods have been used to convict with little or no scientific validation. For Montana Innocence Project client Bernard Pease Jr., unreliable forensic evidence has stolen nearly the last four decades of his life. We hope to prove his innocence with the advent of DNA testing—something that was widely unavailable when Bernard was convicted of Maria Philbrick’s murder in 1984.
Maria Philbrick’s murder
On December 1, 1983, 23-year-old Maria’s body was discovered near a dumpster in Billings, Montana. She suffered approximately 18 stab wounds to her chest, and her throat was cut; however, there was little blood at the scene. Drag marks in the snow suggested that her body was moved. The medical examiner concluded that she died sometime between November 21 and 26.
Maria was a sex worker at the time of her murder. She was living with her trafficker, John Salas, and another sex worker named Brenda Cunningham. John testified that he last saw Maria at approximately 3 a.m. outside Empire Bar on November 24. Brenda similarly testified that she saw Maria at around 3:30 a.m. talking to a man in a yellow truck on November 24. The State ultimately adopted the timeline that Maria was murdered in the early morning hours of November 24. However, employees at the Lewis and Clark Motel where they were living testified to seeing all of them after November 24.
Jackie VanHazel, a housekeeper at the motel, testified that she saw Maria alive on Thanksgiving and the day after. According to Jackie, Maria was in Room 68 with a man and woman fitting the descriptions of John and Brenda. Jackie did not see Maria after November 25 but spoke with a man matching John’s description on November 27 about cleaning his room. He was moving into Room 69 with a woman fitting Brenda’s description. Jackie found it unusual that they moved from a three-bedroom to a one-bedroom.
Michael Stanhipe, the live-in manager at the motel, testified that he saw Maria in the motel’s restaurant on November 26, two days after Thanksgiving. Michael verified that the trio was staying in Room 68 and that the woman fitting Brenda’s description signed a registration card to change rooms on November 27 using Maria’s name. Maria’s body was discovered three days later.
MTIP Legal Director, Caiti Carpenter, contextualizes crime in Billings at the time of Maria’s murder:
Maria’s body was located in an alley beside two dumpsters. Several local businesses backed up to the alley, including the Pease Stove Store. On January 6, 1984, Bernard’s father, owner of the Pease Stove Store, consented to a search of the entire building.
During the search, police found a used condom in a back storage room with specks of blood and blood on some cardboard boxes. However, the police did not believe it was the quantity of blood you would expect to find if the storage room was the site of the murder.
On January 24, police searched the Pease residence. In Bernard’s room, police found pornography and a condom containing pubic hair.
Junk science wrongfully convicts Bernard
This made Bernard a viable suspect to law enforcement, so they moved forward with forensic testing. Blood type testing revealed that the blood found in the storage room at the Pease shop was the same blood type as Maria’s. It is important not to confuse blood type with DNA. At the time of this investigation, DNA testing was not widely available. There was no mechanism for determining whether the blood belonged to Maria; they could only conclude that the blood in the storage room was the same type as Maria’s.
The hair on the condom recovered from Bernard’s house was compared to known hair samples. Former Montana Crime Lab Director Arnold Melnikoff found the hair was consistent with Maria’s pubic hair.
“His (Melknikoff’s) conclusions, he told the jury, are not absolute because no two hairs are identical, even if they come from the same person,” reporter Rita Munzendrider wrote in The Billings Gazette during the trial. “All he can do is determine similar characteristics through comparisons.”
Newspaper clippings from Bernard’s trial:
Microscopic hair analysis compares hair strands using factors like color, thickness, and texture. On April 20, 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. According to the report, false statements were made in 96% of the reviewed cases in which experts relied on microscopic hair analysis to accuse a defendant.
“This is a classic case where the state charges murder and can’t prove it,” said Bernard’s public defender Gary Wilcox in the courtroom shortly after the jury went out for deliberation.
Following forensic testing, Bernard was charged with Deliberate Homicide. The jury convicted him based on the hair and blood evidence. No other evidence connecting Bernard to the victim or the murder was presented.
Bernard’s attorney accused Chief Deputy County Attorney Charles Bradley of being so desperate that he tried to make the jury hate Bernard for his sexual preferences.
MTIP takes the case
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 that were suitable for testing. On April 24, 2019, MTIP filed a petition for DNA testing of the condom found in the storage room, the condom found in Bernard’s room, the hair found on the condom in Bernard’s room, and scrapings from Maria’s fingernails. DNA testing is currently pending.
MTIP Legal Director, Caiti Carpenter, on post-conviction DNA testing in Bernard Pease Jr.’s case:
Bernard is no longer the young man represented in the newspaper clippings. He is in his 60s and has spent most of his life wrongfully incarcerated.
“I still have my pride,” Bernard said. “I can still hold my head up high and know that that [committing murder] is not my category of character. But every day I wake up, no matter what time, and I still got these four walls on me.”
Swipe through to see photos of Bernard (courtesy of Linda Thomas)
Linda Thomas, Bernard’s little sister, said they were always very close. To this day, they talk at least once a week.
“When he was out, he would do anything for anybody,” Linda said. “He was kind of like the big brother of the neighborhood. He would take all of us kids sledding and pull us behind the four-wheeler. We are six years apart, so that’s quite an age difference, but we got along so good. I didn’t get along with my older sisters, but Benard and I were very close. We did a lot of stuff together. We would go out together and just socialize. He was just a good guy.”
Linda said her favorite thing about Bernard is his generosity.
“He was always eager to help,” Linda said. “He was one of those people where if everybody was setting stuff up for a function, he would jump right in. You didn’t have to ask him. He would, you know, see that someone needed help and just do it. Everyone adored him. Everyone who knew him that I knew of just adored him. He was just a likable guy.”
Where the case stands today:
Bernard was granted pre-release on November 29, 2022! Bernard’s parole hearing was in front of Board Chairmen Steve Hurd and Board members Brad Newman and Jimmy Patelis. Following their deliberation, the Board announced its unanimous decision to grant Bernard parole following his completion of an extended stay in a pre-release program that would aid his transition following nearly four decades in prison. He was transferred to the pre-release center in Billings in January 2023.
“The Board’s decision to grant parole marks a significant step, allowing Bernard to better participate and advocate his innocence and achieve his full freedom once and for all.” Carpenter said. “We are honored to assist him in this effort.”
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