Montana Innocence Project client Bernard Pease Jr. was granted parole Tuesday, subject to completion of an extended stay in a pre-release center.
Bernard was wrongfully convicted of Deliberate Homicide in 1984 based largely on expert testimony from Arnold Melnikoff–the former Montana Crime Lab analyst who played a role in four other wrongful convictions. MTIP began working on his case in 2008 and will continue to advocate for his exoneration through ongoing DNA testing.
Tuesday’s parole hearing was set after a July administrative review in front of the Montana Board of Pardons and Parole in which MTIP raised concerns about the level of medical care Bernard is receiving at Crossroads Correctional Center. On Tuesday, William Weber, MD, MPH spoke to how Bernard’s care is not in line with national standards and that his conditions would stabilize if not improve if he were treated outside of prison. Dr. Weber is with the Medical Justice Alliance, an organization dedicated to protecting the right to health care for incarcerated people.
MTIP’s presentation to the Board included a short video of recommendations for release from family and law enforcement officers who have worked with him during his time at various facilities across Montana and Tennessee. See the video below:
MTIP also presented a thorough parole plan with re-entry supports addressing everything from mental health to financial and technological literacy. MTIP is committed to supporting Bernard in his journey through pre-release and his return to the community. Once paroled, he plans to live with his younger sister Linda.
“I’ve never been so excited to have so much work to do,” said MTIP Legal Director, Caiti Carpenter, in reference to enacting Bernard’s parole plan.
Bernard’s hearing was in front of Board Chairmen Steve Hurd and Board members Brad Newman and Jimmy Patelis. Following their deliberation, the Board announced its unanimous decision to grant Bernard parole following his completion of an extended stay in a pre-release program that would aid his transition following nearly four decades in prison.
“The Board’s decision to grant parole marks a significant step, allowing Bernard to better participate and advocate his innocence and achieve his full freedom once and for all.” Carpenter said. “We are honored to assist him in this effort.”
Bernard’s 39 years of wrongful incarceration cost Montana taxpayers roughly $1.4 million.
About Bernard’s Case:
On December 1, 1983, 23-year-old Maria Philbrick’s body was discovered in an alleyway in Billings. She tragically died from multiple stab wounds.
The alleyway contained back entrances to several local businesses, including the Pease Stove Store. Bernard’s father consented to a search of the store. In a back storage room, police found traces of blood on a used condom and on a few cardboard boxes. This led them to search the Pease residence. In Bernard’s room, they found pornography and a condom containing pubic hair.
Blood type testing revealed that the blood found in the storage room at the Pease shop was the same blood type as Maria’s. It is important not to confuse blood type with DNA. At the time of the investigation, there was no mechanism for determining whether the blood belonged to Maria–they could only conclude it was the same blood type as Maria’s.
Additionally, analysts compared the pubic hair from the condom found in Bernard’s room to hair found at the crime scene. Then-Montana State Crime Lab Director Arnold Melnikoff testified that the pubic hair was similar to Maria’s, and the hair found at the crime scene was similar to Bernard’s. Bernard was charged with Deliberate Homicide, and a jury convicted him based on the hair and blood type evidence. No witnesses testified to seeing Bernard with Maria or in the area of the store on the night of her murder.
Washington state audited Melnikoff’s lab work following the DNA-based exonerations of Jimmy Ray Bromgard, Paul Kordonowy, and Chester Bauer, all Montana cases in which Melnikoff’s hair analysis and expert testimony were used to convict. Barry Beach, whose conviction was also based on Melnikoff’s testimony, was granted clemency.
In 2015, the FBI, the United States Department of Defense, The Innocence Project, and The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers published a report disqualifying microscopic hair analysis as scientifically valid.
On April 24, 2019, MTIP filed a petition for DNA testing of the condom found in the storage room, the condom found in Bernard’s room, the pubic hair found on the condom in Bernard’s room, and scrapings from Maria’s fingernails. DNA testing is currently pending.
Bernard is a descendant of the Crow Tribe and grew up in Billings with his parents, sisters, and close cousins. He helped with the family masonry business but always wanted to become a fishing guide. Wrongfully convicted at 26-years-old, he never got to pursue that goal.
However, while incarcerated, Bernard blossomed into an artist–mainly specializing in beadwork. He succeeded in numerous jobs, including cooking and cleaning, and held trustee positions in the various facilities he has been housed at.
During his 39 years in prison, Bernard has received a single write-up–this is almost unheard of for such a lengthy incarceration time and speaks to his exemplary conduct. Bernard’s file contains hundreds of accreditations and certifications from the classes he has completed.
Despite the communication barriers prisons pose, Bernard has maintained relationships with family. He used to speak with his parents every week until they passed in 2020. He still talks with his sister, Linda, almost every day.
Following pre-release, Bernard is excited to live with Linda. Due to his current medical conditions, the Board did not impose a work requirement for Bernard. Although, he hopes to occupy his time, health permitting, so as not to isolate himself. During his hearing, Bernard eloquently spoke to the challenges he will likely face entering society after being removed for almost 40 years and embraces the opportunity pre-release offers.
Immediately after Bernard’s parole hearing, Linda visited the cemetery to share the news with their parents.
“I first want to thank the Montana Innocence Project for seeing Bernard’s innocence after investigating his case,” Linda said. “The parole board voted unanimously for his release after 39 years. We are so privileged to have the Montana Innocence Project continue to prove his innocence and restore his good name.”
The next step is applying for pre-release centers. And, of course, MTIP will continue to fight his innocence case. Follow MTIP on social media @BigSkyInnocence for updates on Bernard’s new journey!