Cost of Wrongful Incarceration
$604,405 (in 2015 dollars)
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 at his friend Rick Scarborough’s house. Raugust chose to stay there because it was near the job site he had to report to early in the morning. Tash and Ross headed back to the trailer that Tash and Raugust shared, and, for Raugust, that was the end of the night.
The next morning, Sanders County Sheriff’s deputies approached Raugust at his job and put him under arrest. The night prior, Ross called 911 to report the murder of Tash. Ross told the police that Raugust shot and killed Tash, set the trailer on fire, and discarded the gun in the fire.
Raugust was charged with the murder of Tash, attempted arson, and attempted tampering with physical evidence. He told the police that he never went back to the trailer that night, and he told them about staying 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, at the Sanders County District Court. 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 trailer to continue the party once the bar closed. When they got to the trailer, Ross testified that they built a bonfire, drank, and smoked weed. He said that Tash and Raugust got into an argument because Raugust wanted to smoke another joint, but Tash refused. Ross testified 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 early in the morning and gave him a ride to his job.
On March 26, 1998, the jury found Raugust guilty of murder, attempted arson and attempted tampering with physical evidence. He was sentenced to life in prison.
MTIP Takes the Case
The Montana Innocence Project 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, Tom Scarborough, confirming that Rick Scarborough lied about Raugust staying over that night. According to the statement, Ross killed Tash over an unpaid weed debt, and Ross convinced Rick Scarborough to lie about Raugust’s alibi.
MTIP Requests New Trial
In August 2012, the Montana Innocence Project filed a post-conviction petition seeking a new trial, but they amended the petition in 2013 following the discovery of additional new evidence.
Sheriff’s deputy Wayne Abbey told MTIP 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. He could not confirm that anyone got out of the car but he believes that is what happened. Furthermore, Abbey admitted to MTIP that the prosecution withheld this information from Raugust’s original defense attorneys.
MTIP filed the amended petition. In November 2015, Sanders County District Court Judge James Wheelis granted the petition, vacated Raugust’s convictions, and ordered a new trial. Raugust was released on bond on December 4, 2015, pending the retrial.
Raugust Becomes MTIP’s First Freed Client
Although the prosecution announced plans to appeal the ruling, 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.