Age at the date of crime: 27
County of Conviction: Yellowstone
Convicted of: Deliberate Homicide with a Dangerous Weapon
Sentence: 110 years
Years Served: 35 years and counting
Cost of Wrongful Incarceration: $1,155,000 and counting (in 2015 dollars)
On December 1, 1983, Maria Philbrick (also known as Maria LaFramboise)’s body was found near a dumpster in the alley behind the Pease Stove Store (“Pease shop”) on the corner of 2nd Avenue North and North 12th Street, Billings, Montana. Bernard Pease Jr. was ultimately charged and convicted of deliberate homicide. While considerable evidence was gathered in relation to the crime, none of it was subjected to DNA testing.
Because of the poor condition of the body at the time of the autopsy, it was impossible to determine a precise time of death. However, Medical Examiner Kenneth Muller concluded the victim died sometime between November 21-26, 1983. Philbrick was working as a sex worker at the time of the homicide, and her trafficker, John Salas, testified that he last saw her at approximately 3:00 a.m. on November 24, 1983, which was Thanksgiving Day. The State adopted the theory that Philbrick was killed shortly after on the morning of November 24, 1983. Salas was the only witness to testify at trial with his attorney standing by. He was also the only witness to invoke his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination at the trial.
Two employees of the motel where the victim was living with Salas and another sex worker named Brenda Cunningham testified they saw Philbrick alive days after Salas claimed to have last seen her. Jackie VanHazel, a maid at the Lewis and Clark Motel, testified that she worked Thanksgiving Day, 1983, and saw Philbrick while VanHazel was working. VanHazel recognized Philbrick because she had seen Philbrick at the motel “[p]robably ten times, or more.” VanHazel explained that Philbrick was in her room (number 68) with a man and woman fitting the descriptions of Salas and Cunningham. VanHazel spoke with Philbrick in room 68 of the Lewis & Clark Motel on Thanksgiving Day and the following day. VanHazel did not see the victim after November 25, 1983, but spoke with a man fitting Salas’ description on November 27, 1983, when he asked her to clean his room a second time because he was moving into a neighboring room (number 69). VanHazel found it unusual that the man and woman fitting Salas’ and Cunningham’s descriptions were moving from a three-bedroom to a one-bedroom.
Michael Stanhope, the live-in manager at the Lewis and Clark Motel, testified that he saw the victim in the Motel’s restaurant on November 26th, two days after Salas claimed to have last seen the victim. Stanhope and the victim were familiar with each other because the victim lived in the motel with a man and woman fitting Salas’ and Cunningham’s description and Stanhope had seen the victim “probably eight or ten times.” Stanhope verified that the trio were staying in room 68, and on November 27, 1983, the woman fitting Cunningham’s description signed a registration card to change rooms. She signed the card using the victim’s name.
The victim’s body was discovered near a dumpster shared by neighboring businesses behind the Pease shop on Thursday, December 1st. The victim was nude, and there was little blood at the scene. The victim suffered approximately 18 stab wounds to her chest and her throat was cut.
At autopsy, Dr. Mueller determined the victim’s body was almost completely exsanguinated. Dr. Mueller and Det. Herschi, who assisted in the autopsy, collected samples of blood, tissue, saliva, hair, fingernail scrapings, and other materials from the victim.
On January 6, 1984, Bernard Pease, Sr. (Pease Sr.) consented to a search of the entire Pease shop. During the search, police found, among other things, a used condom in a back storage room referred to by the State as the “wash bay.” Police found small blood smears and stains on boxes and specks of blood on the condom in the wash bay. However, police did not find evidence of blood spatter or the quantity of blood expected if the wash bay was the site of the murder.
On January 24, 1984, the police searched Pease Jr.’s bedroom, located in the basement of his parents’ home. The police seized many items of evidence including used and unused condoms. At trial, Detective Herschi identified a box containing items of evidence seized from Petitioner’s bedroom. The box contained three used condoms, one of which contained a pubic hair.
At trial, the State relied on two expert witnesses’ testimony to connect Pease Jr. to the victim. Kenneth Konzak, head of the forensic serology section of the Montana Crime Laboratory (“Crime Lab”), testified about the blood types he identified on fluid stains found on numerous items of evidence. Specifically, Konzak examined the condom from the wash bay and the condoms seized from Petitioner’s bedroom. On the outside of the condom from the wash bay, Konzak concluded there was a mixture of secretions and blood. Konzak determined that if the blood and secretions came from the same person, the victim and Pease Jr. could be eliminated as contributors. However, if the blood and secretions came from two people, the victim and Pease Jr. could not be eliminated as possible contributors. Konzak also determined that Pease Jr. could be a contributor of the secretions on the condoms found in his bedroom.
Crime Lab Director Arnold Melnikoff testified about his microscopic analysis of hairs recovered by the police. Melnikoff linked the pubic hair found on a condom from Pease Jr.’s bedroom to the victim through microscopic hair comparison analysis. Melnikoff also testified that a hair found stuck to blood on the victim’s head had “very similar characteristics” to Pease Jr.’s head hairs, including a pigment distribution and shape that “was very similar and comparable”, and a color that “was within the known color of the Defendant’s hair.” Further, Melnikoff testified that a hair found in the victim’s right index finger was “very similar in color . . . [and] very comparable in thickness, cuticles, and intermediate thickness” to Pease Jr.’s hair. He also testified the hair found in the blood on the victim’s head had a “blotchy mosaic type pigment pattern . . . that was characteristic of the [Pease Jr.’s] hair.”
The hair and blood were the only pieces of physical evidence directly and specifically connecting Pease Jr. to the victim. No witnesses testified to: (1) seeing Pease Jr. in the area of the Pease shop in the early morning of Thanksgiving 1983, (2) seeing Pease Jr. with the victim, or (3) seeing Pease Jr. commit the homicide.
On April 24, 2019 the Montana Innocence Project filed a petition for DNA testing of the following evidence:
Condom found in the wash bay;
Used condom found in Bernard Jr.’s home;
Hair found on condom in Bernard Jr.’s home; and
Scrapings from victim’s fingernails.
On May 17, 2019 the Honorable Michael Moses, District Court Judge of Montana’s Thirteenth Judicial District ordered MTIP serve the petition upon the Montana Attorney General, the Yellowstone County Attorney, the Billings Police Department, and the Montana Crime Lab, and
Provided that the served parties will have 60 days to respond to the Petition.
Upon receipt of Judge Moses, order, MTIP provided copies of the petition to all the previously unserved parties on May 29, 2019.