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Photo of Bernard Pease in court
Bernard Pease at his trial (Photo courtesy of The Billings Gazette)

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 the last three 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 to the place where it was discovered. 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 of 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 the victim after November 25 but spoke with a man fitting John’s description on November 27 about cleaning his room because he was moving into Room 69 with a woman fitting Brenda’s description. Jackie found it unusual that the man and woman believed to be were moving 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:

Bernard

Maria’s body was located in an alley beside two garbage cans. Several local businesses backed up to this 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 on it and blood on some cardboard boxes. However, police did not believe it was the quantity of blood that 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 a condom containing a pubic hair and pornography, and they also learned that Bernard drove a yellow and white truck.

Bernard Pease newspaper clipping
Letter to the editor appearing in the Billings Gazette

To law enforcement, this made Bernard a viable suspect, 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 blood type as Maria’s.

Additionally, law enforcement had the pubic hair from the condom found in Bernard’s room compared to hair from the crime scene. Then-Montana Crime Lab Director Arnold Melnikoff testified that the pubic hair and hair found at the crime scene were similar to Bernard’s.

“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, he said.”

Microscopic hair analysis, which was relied on in this case, 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 hair follicle evidence 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.

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.

Following forensic testing, Bernard was charged with Deliberate Homicide. The jury convicted him based on the hair and blood evidence. No witnesses testified to seeing Bernard in the area of the Pease Stove Store on November 24, seeing Bernard with the victim, or seeing Bernard commit the homicide.

“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. 

Bernard’s attorney went on to accuse Chief Deputy County Attorney Charles Bradley of being so desperate that he tried to make the jury hate Bernard for his sexual preferences.

Newspapers published charts of the expenses incurred in the prosecution of Bernard Pease:

Newspaper clippings from the Billings Gazette

MTIP takes the case

MTIP originally reviewed Bernard’s case in 2009 but closed the case when it could not find new evidence of innocence. After working with the State legislature to amend Montana’s DNA testing statute in 2015 to allow new forms of DNA testing to qualify as new evidence of innocence, MTIP took another look at Bernard’s case to see if DNA evidence could prove his innocence.

MTIP 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, the Montana Innocence Project 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 the majority of his life wrongfully incarcerated.

“I still have my pride,” Bernard said. “I can still hold my head up high and know that that 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.”