Cost of Wrongful Incarceration
$604,405 (in 2015 dollars)
Lies have a lot of power in our criminal justice 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 Raugust were drinking at the Naughty Pine Saloon in Trout Creek, Montana. After the bar closed, Ross and Tash dropped Raugust off near Rick Scarborough’s house. Scarborough was one of Raugust’s friends. He chose to stay there because it was near the job site in White Pine that he had to report to early the following morning.
After dropping Raugust off, Tash and Ross headed back to the house that Tash and Raugust shared. For Raugust, that was the end of his night; he had an early report time for a painting job the next morning.
It was at that job site the following day that Sanders County sheriff deputies arrested Raugust for Tash’s murder.
“He was not covered in blood, not covered in anything,” said Sarah Lockwood, a former MTIP intern who worked on the case. “…They could have done gunshot residue testing on his hands. They just did nothing.”
Raugust and Tash had been friends for more than ten years. Despite this, the night prior, Ross called 911 to report that Raugust shot and killed Tash, set their home on fire, and discarded the gun in the fire.
MTIP Legal Director, Caiti Carpenter, on motivations behind false allegations:
Raugust was charged with the murder of Tash, attempted arson, and attempted tampering with physical evidence. He told the police that he did not go home that night and insisted that he had stayed over at Scarborough’s house. Unfortunately, none of this mattered because Scarborough refused to corroborate Raugust’s alibi.
The State’s Case
Raugust went to trial in March 1998. The prosecution’s key witness was Ross who denied dropping off Raugust at Scarborough’s house. He testified that the three men went back to the Raugust and Tash’s house to continue to hang out after the bar closed. When they got there, Ross testified that they built a bonfire, drank, and smoked weed. According to his testimony, Tash and Raugust got into an argument because Raugust wanted to smoke another joint, but Tash refused. Ross went on to claim that he went to sleep on the couch and woke up to the sound of Raugust shooting Tash.
Scarborough was also a key witness. He maintained that Raugust did not spend the night. Instead, Scarborough testified that he saw Raugust walking along the highway shortly after Ross called 911 to report Tash’s murder and that he gave him a ride to his job.
On March 26, 1998, the jury found Raugust guilty on all counts, and he was sentenced to life in prison.
MTIP Takes the Case
MTIP began investigating Raugust’s claim of innocence in 2009. The investigation revealed that Ross had confessed to killing Tash to one of their mutual friends, Randy Fisher, who was at the bar with the group on the night of the murder. Fisher told MTIP that Ross confessed to him on more than one occasion.
Additionally, MTIP obtained a statement from Scarborough’s brother that confirmed Raugust had stayed over that night. Also, according to the statement, Ross killed Tash over an unpaid weed debt and convinced Scarborough to lie about Raugust’s alibi.
MTIP Requests New Trial
In August 2012, MTIP filed a post-conviction 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 Ross, Tash, and Raugust leave the Naughty Pine Saloon in Ross’s car and that Ross pulled over down the street near Scarborough’s house. In support of Raugust’s alibi, he told Veysey that the dome light went on, meaning someone got out.
Veysey also learned that the prosecution withheld this information from Raugust’s original defense attorneys, constituting a Brady violation, which is when the state unconstitutionally withholds exculpatory evidence from the defense.
MTIP Legal Director, Caiti Carpenter, on the Brady evidence in 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 Raugust’s convictions, and ordered a new trial.
“Brady is a pretty strong piece of law,” Lockwood said. “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.”
Raugust was released on bond on December 4, 2015 pending retrial.
Raugust Becomes MTIP’s First Freed Client
Although the prosecution announced plans to appeal the ruling granting the new trial, they withdrew their appeal in August 2016. On September 7, 2016, the prosecution dismissed the charges against Raugust, making him MTIP’s first freed client.
“Richard had always maintained his innocence,” Lockwood 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, Raugust filed a civil claim against the State of Montana seeking $97 million in compensation. The state denied the claim a few months later. However, in February 2020, Raugust filed a federal civil rights lawsuit seeking compensation for his wrongful conviction.
While wrongfully incarcerated, Raugust wrote a book of poems called “Fishers of Trout and Men: Protectors of the Realm.” Veysey, who obtained the alibi evidence, tragically died at the age of 26 while rock climbing Longs Peak in Rocky Mountain National Park. Raugust wrote “The Natural,” which is featured in his book, about him. 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,” Raugust 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 in wrongfully convicted, according to Joe Bischof, the former MTIP Executive Director, Raugust carries no bitterness.
“It’s really kind of a remarkable thing to witness,” Bischof 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.”