On Tuesday, the Montana Supreme Court affirmed the denial of Montana Innocence Project client Aaron Oliphant’s Petition for Post Conviction Relief, Motion for New Trial, and Discovery Motion. Justices Gustafson and Shea dissented.
Aaron was wrongfully convicted of assaulting his son in 2016 based on the highly controversial diagnosis: Shaken Baby Syndrome (now commonly referred to as Abusive Head Trauma). He was sentenced to the maximum term of 20 years in Montana State Prison with five years suspended.
MTIP filed a Motion for New Trial, a Petition for Post-Conviction Relief, and a Request to Stay Proceedings Pending Full Discovery in June 2020. The arguments for Aaron’s innocence are (1) newly discovered medical evidence disproves the AHT diagnosis, and (2) trial counsel was ineffective for, among other things, failing to refute the AHT diagnosis by not calling an expert witness and not cross-examining many of the State’s five expert witnesses.
The District Court denied the motion and petition, without ruling on the discovery motion in January 2022, finding that the PCR petition was time-barred because Aaron did not appeal his conviction within 60 days of it becoming final. Aaron sought to appeal his conviction, but his trial attorney told him there were no appealable issues and that his only avenue was sentence review. This is another example of his attorney’s representation being ineffective.
The District Court could have waived the time bar on equitable grounds in light of newly discovered evidence of innocence. MTIP presented a preliminary expert medical opinion, finding that the timing of Aaron’s son’s injuries is inconsistent with AHT being the cause and offers sinus or cortical vein thrombosis as a possible cause. The opinion is based on newly discovered medical records that MTIP obtained that were not in the trial counsel’s file. The records are incomplete, and MTIP has been unable to obtain the full records to offer a full medical expert opinion because the State has directed providers to not disclose them. MTIP asked the District Court to order full discovery of the medical records so our expert could provide a full opinion. The District Court did not waive the time bar, finding that the preliminary medical expert opinion does not outweigh the five medical experts the State presented at trial.
The Montana Supreme Court’s majority opinion echoes the District Court’s. The dissenting opinion recognizes the circular reasoning: to prove Aaron’s trial counsel was ineffective for failing to refute AHT, MTIP needs the full medical records to show that there is, in fact, a different medical conclusion that supports Aaron’s innocence, but the District Court will not order discovery because the claim is untimely. The claim is only untimely because Aaron’s trial attorney was ineffective when advising him that he had no appealable issues and that sentencing review was his only remedy.
“I am heartbroken for the Oliphants,” said MTIP Legal Director Caiti Carpenter. “And further heartbroken for what this decision could mean for anyone accused of a crime in the State of Montana and finds themselves on the receiving end of ineffective counsel. We will continue to fight for Aaron’s freedom.”
The MTIP Legal Team is discussing the next steps for Aaron’s case, and we will provide updates as soon as possible. In the meantime, please keep Aaron and the Oliphant family in your thoughts as they process the difficult emotions that too often accompany fights for innocence.