Lies have a lot of power in our criminal legal system—a fact Montana Innocence Project’s first freed client Richard Raugust knows too well.
The night before
In July 1997, Rory Ross, Joe Tash, and Richard were drinking at the Naughty Pine Saloon in Trout Creek, Montana. After the bar closed, Rory and Joe dropped Richard off near Rick Scarborough’s house. Rick was one of Richard’s friends. Richard chose to stay there instead of going home because it was near the job site he had to report to the next day. After dropping Richard off, Rory and Joe headed back to the house that Joe and Richard shared. But for Richard, that was the end of his night; he had an early report time for a painting job in the morning.
It was at that painting job the following day that Sanders County deputies arrested Richard for Joe’s murder. Richard and Joe had been friends for more than 10 years. The night prior, Rory called 911 to report that Richard shot and killed Joe, set their home on fire, and discarded the gun in the fire.
MTIP Legal Director, Caiti Carpenter, on motivations behind false allegations:
Richard was charged with Deliberate Homicide, Attempted Arson, and Attempted Tampering with Physical Evidence. He told the police he did not go home and that he was actually at Rick’s house that night. Unfortunately, none of this mattered because Rick refused to corroborate Richard’s alibi.
The State’s case
Richard went to trial in March 1998. The prosecution’s key witness was Rory, who denied dropping off Richard at Rick’s house. He testified that the three men went back to Richard and Joe’s house to continue hanging out after the bar closed. When they got there, Rory testified that they built a bonfire, drank, and smoked weed. According to his testimony, Richard and Joe got into an argument because Richard wanted to smoke another joint, but Joe refused. Rory said that he went to sleep on the couch and woke up to the sound of Richard shooting Joe.
Rick was also a key witness. He maintained that Richard did not spend the night. Instead, Rick testified that he saw Richard walking along the highway shortly after Rory called 911 to report Joe’s murder and that he gave him a ride to his job.
On March 26, 1998, the jury found Richard guilty on all counts, and he was sentenced to life in prison.
MTIP takes the case
MTIP began investigating Richard’s claim of innocence in 2009. The investigation revealed that Rory had confessed to killing Joe to one of their mutual friends, Randy Fisher, who was at the bar with the group on the night of the murder. Randy told MTIP that Rory confessed to him on more than one occasion.
Additionally, MTIP obtained a statement from Rick’s brother that confirmed Richard had stayed over that night. Also, according to the statement, Rory killed Joe over an unpaid weed debt and convinced Rick to lie about Richard’s alibi.
MTIP requests a new trial
In August 2012, MTIP filed a post-conviction relief petition seeking a new trial but amended the petition in 2013 following the discovery of additional new evidence.
Sheriff’s Deputy Wayne Abbey told MTIP investigator Spencer Veysey that he saw Rory, Joe, and Richard leave the Naughty Pine Saloon in Rory’s car and that Rory pulled over down the street near Rick’s house. Further supporting Richard’s alibi, Deputy Abbey told Spencer that the dome light went on, showing someone got out of the car.
Spencer also learned that the prosecution knew this information but failed to provide it to Richard’s original defense attorneys, constituting a Brady violation; this is when the State unconstitutionally withholds exculpatory evidence from the defense.
MTIP Legal Director, Caiti Carpenter, on the Brady evidence in Richard Raugust’s case:
MTIP filed the amended petition based on the revelation of the Brady violation. In November 2015, Sanders County District Court Judge James Wheelis granted the petition, vacated Richard’s convictions, and ordered a new trial.
“Brady is a pretty strong piece of law,” said Sarah Lockwood, a former MTIP intern who worked on the case. “And if the prosecution withholds material evidence, whether that’s done negligently like what was the case here or intentionally, that’s the remedy. You get a new trial.”
Richard was released on bond on December 4, 2015, pending retrial.
Richard Raugust becomes MTIP’s first freed client
Although the prosecution announced plans to appeal the ruling granting the new trial, they withdrew their notice of appeal in August 2016. On September 7, 2016, the prosecution dismissed the charges against Richard, making him MTIP’s first freed client.
“Richard had always maintained his innocence,” Sarah said. “There was never any period where he considered giving in to get a deal. … Innocent clients are always the worst at helping their own case in some ways because they don’t know what’s happened. They weren’t there.”
In May 2019, Richard filed a civil claim against the State seeking $97 million in compensation. The State denied the claim a few months later. However, in February 2020, Richard filed a federal civil rights lawsuit seeking compensation for his wrongful conviction, which is still pending.
While wrongfully incarcerated, Richard wrote a book of poems called “Fishers of Trout and Men: Protectors of the Realm.” Spencer, who obtained the alibi evidence, tragically died at the age of 26 while rock climbing Longs Peak in Rocky Mountain National Park. Richard wrote “The Natural,” which is featured in his book about Spencer. In part, it reads, “We should all be thankful for the presence he bestowed. Who would have thought he was not immortal?”
“I met Spencer in the prison library and saw that for a young man, he was quite mature and energetic with potential,” Richard said. “I don’t recall exactly how many times we met at the prison, but it was enough to get to know that when I got out, he’d be on my cool dude list and help me get back to life. … I wrote the poem about him to commemorate his life and work so others that knew him could have a memento to go with their memories of him as well.”
Despite spending over 18 years of his life wrongfully convicted, according to Joe Bischof, former MTIP Executive Director, Richard carries no bitterness.
“It’s really kind of a remarkable thing to witness,” Joe said. “I think any of us who had been wronged the way he was would certainly carry something with us harboring a lot of disgust and dislike for our fellow human beings.”