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Photo courtesy of The Billings Gazette

The Accident

On January 1, 2008, Bronson Parsons was walking along Highway 200 in East Missoula when he was struck and killed in a hit and run accident.

Ten hours later, Montana Highway Patrol stopped Katie Garding near the scene because she had a cracked windshield. However, she was quickly released when law enforcement realized there was no damage to her car’s front end where they would expect to see significant damage had her car been the one that hit Parsons. 

False Allegation

About a year later, the State of Montana charged Garding with Vehicular Homicide and Leaving the Scene of an Accident. Garding’s former partner, James Bordeaux, alleged she committed the crime. At the time, Bordeaux was facing a burglary charge and a Persistent Felony Offender designation, meaning that the court could have sentenced him for up to 100 years. Bordeaux made a plea deal with the State that he would testify against Garding and plead guilty to the burglary charge, and the State would recommend that he receive a five-year suspended sentence as opposed to the possible 100 he faced as a PFO.

Trial and Appeal

The case went to trial in June 2011. Garding was represented by a public defender who did not hire an accident reconstruction expert to testify. She was found guilty, and in 2013, the Montana Supreme Court affirmed the conviction. Following her unsuccessful appeal, MTIP began investigating Garding’s case. 

MTIP Takes Garding’s Case

Three arguments emerged in support of her innocence: (1) the State violated Garding’s 5th and 14th Amendment rights when it failed to turn over exculpatory evidence, including x-rays of the victim taken by its medical expert and photographs of a similar crash that would have supported the argument that Garding’s car could not have been responsible for Parsons death due to its lack of damage; (2) Garding’s trial counsel was ineffective when she failed to hire an accident reconstruction expert; and (3) newly discovered evidence in the form of findings from three accident reconstruction experts hired by MTIP show Garding’s car could not have caused Parsons’s death. 

Based on these findings, on September 15, 2015, MTIP filed a Petition for Post-Conviction Relief, which was reviewed by District Judge John Larson.

Petition for Post Conviction Relief

Regarding the proposed Brady violations, Judge Larson found that the evidence from the 2005 crash was not exculpatory because there was no analysis showing the similarity between the two accidents; therefore, he concluded that it was not probable that the defense having the evidence would have produced a different outcome at trial.

Judge Larson also refuted the ineffective assistance of counsel argument, finding that Garding’s original attorney was effective because she had competent cross-examinations, and he believed that not calling a reconstruction expert was strategic, not ineffective.

Appeal to the Montana State Supreme Court

MTIP appealed Judge Larson’s ruling to the Montana State Supreme Court, arguing three things: (1) the District Court erred by denying Garding’s petition for post-conviction relief based on her claim of ineffective assistance of counsel (specifically because trial counsel failed to hire an accident reconstructionist); (2) the District Court erred by concluding the State did not fail to disclose exculpatory evidence in the form of x-rays and photos that we believe would have aided Garding’s defense; and (3) the District Court err by concluding the findings of an accident reconstructionist acquired by MTIP were not newly discovered evidence. 

The Montana State Supreme Court affirmed Judge Larson’s ruling on June 23, 2020. 

In response to the first argument regarding the Ineffective Assistance of Counsel, the court found that Garding’s trial counsel was effective because she attempted to undermine all of the state’s evidence. We specifically highlighted the trial counsel’s decision not to hire an accident reconstructionist as ineffective. The court found that hiring an accident reconstructionist was a strategic alternative to what was presented at trial; they characterized hiring an accident reconstructionist as a “Plan B” and that it was not unreasonable of Garding’s trial counsel to go with “Plan A” instead.

Second, we argued the state suppressed x-rays and a similar 2005 vehicle pedestrian crash photos, used by its expert, which, if disclosed, would have supported Garding’s defense that she was not the perpetrator. Regarding the x-rays, the court found that they were not in the possession of the State but rather the Crime Lab; therefore, the State did not have to disclose them to the defense. Similarly, regarding the photos, the court found that the State did not withhold them because they were unaware of them.

Lastly, the Supreme Court agreed with Larsons’ determination that since counsel could have obtained these expert opinions at trial, they are not “new” within the meaning of the statute.

Petition for Habeas Corpus

Having exhausted all of its remedies in state court, MTIP filed a Petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus in federal court earlier this week. 

“So now we start, essentially, all over,” said Garding’s counsel and MTIP Board Member Lars Phillips. “We go to the federal court, and we say, ‘here are all our claims for relief. Here is what we request. Here are the reasons why we’re making this request. Here’s the evidence we have to support that request.’ The federal court then considers that in light of some pretty heavy standards of review.”

The standard of review is the mechanism a court uses to evaluate a claim. It determines how strongly the higher court has to defer to the lower court that it is reviewing. 

“So here, the federal court has to give a lot of deference to the state court,” Phillips said. “That’s just the fact. We’re asking this federal court to review the state court’s decision and actually reach the merits of our claims.”

In the petition, Phillips puts forth three claims: the ineffective assistance of counsel and Brady violation claims that were made in state court as well as a third claim that the cumulative effect of the violations of Garding’s constitutional rights impaired her ability to have a fair trial. 

There are other avenues to free Garding if the petition is denied, but the ideal outcome is a new trial where the newly discovered evidence can be presented. 

“The federal district court can either agree with us on any of those claims, and if they did that, they would do what’s called reverse and remand and send it back to a district court for a new trial,” said MTIP Legal Director Caiti Carpenter. “And then if they disagree with us, then we would have an opportunity to appeal to the Ninth Circuit.” 

MTIP also plans to simultaneously ask the Supreme Court of the United States to overturn the Montana State Supreme Court’s ruling. 

“It looks different if we have a new trial from the federal court or if the United States Supreme Court sides with us, but the end result will be the same, which is another chance for Katie to prove that she’s innocent of these charges,” Phillips said. 

MTIP Executive Director, Amy Sings In The Timber, said the organization continues to fight for Garding because it believes in the power of the newly discovered evidence to demonstrate her innocence.

“MTIP is dedicated to the investigation, litigation, and exoneration of the wrongfully convicted.  Our process is rigorous,” Sings In The Timber said. “We’ve taken Katie’s case because we believe that the new evidence of innocence is strong enough to overcome the incredibly steep obstacles set before her—strong enough to walk by Katie’s side until justice prevails.”