Montana Innocence Project current client Bernard Pease’s case is up for administrative review on July 21. Conducted by the Montana Board of Pardons and Parole, an administrative review considers whether continued incarceration is appropriate.
Bernard was wrongfully convicted of Deliberate Homicide based on microscopic hair analysis, which is now considered a junk science, and blood typing, which is not as precise as DNA testing. Further, antiquated beliefs about race and sexuality supported the State’s case against him. With advances in forensic science, we do not believe the evidence against Bernard would produce a conviction if he was tried today.
A descendent of the Crow Tribe, Bernard has been wrongfully incarcerated for 37 years. Aging within the confines of prison walls, his health has rapidly declined, and he deserves a better quality of life for his remaining years.
Below is a brief overview of his case along with action steps to demand justice for Bernard at his upcoming administrative review:
About the case:
On December 1, 1983, the body of 23-year-old sex worker, Maria Philbrick, was discovered near a dumpster in Billings, Montana. Her throat was cut and she was stabbed 18 times. Drag marks in the snow and the lack of blood at the scene led investigators to believe that her body was moved. The medical examiner concluded that she died sometime between November 21 and 26.
At the time of her murder, Maria was living at a motel with her trafficker, John Salas, and another sex worker named Brenda Cunningham. Both testified the last time they saw Maria was during the early morning hours of November 24. Based on their testimony, the state adopted the timeline that Maria was murdered in the early morning hours of November 24.
However, other witness accounts directly contradict that timeline. Jackie VanHazel, a housekeeper at the motel, testified that she saw Maria alive on Thanksgiving and the day after. Michael Stanhipe, the live-in manager at the motel, saw Maria in the motel’s restaurant on November 26. The day after the final sighting of Maria, on November 27, John and a woman fitting Brenda’s description moved from a three-bedroom to a one-bedroom, which Jackie found unusual. Maria’s body was discovered three days later.
The alley where Maria’s body was shared by several local businesses, including the Pease Stove Store. On January 6, 1984, while police were conducting searches of the alleyway, Bernard’s father, owner of the Pease Stove Store, consented to a search of the building.
During the search, in a back storage room, police found a small amount blood and a used condom. Police acknowledged that it was not the amount of blood you would expect to find if the storage room was the site of a murder. However, on January 24, police still decided to search the Pease residence. In Bernard’s room, they found some racy magazines and a condom with a pubic hair.
This made Bernard a viable suspect to law enforcement, so they moved forward with forensic testing. 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 typing with DNA. At the time of the investigation, DNA testing was not available. There was no mechanism for determining whether the blood belonged to Maria–they could only conclude that the blood in the storage room was likely the same type as Maria’s.
Additionally, law enforcement compared the pubic hair from the condom found in Bernard’s room to the victim’s hair along with other witnesses’ hair. Then-Montana Crime Lab Director Arnold Melnikoff testified that the pubic hair found on the condom matched Maria’s hair.
Microscopic hair analysis compares hair strands using factors like color, thickness, and texture. On April 20, 2015, the FBI, the United States Department of Defense, The Innocence Project, and The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers published a report disqualifying hair follicle evidence as scientifically valid.
The jury convicted Bernard based on the hair and blood type evidence.
While wrongfully incarcerated, Bernard has worked hard to make the best of his circumstances. In the 37 years he has spent in prison, Bernard has only been written up one time and has held trustee positions in the various facilities he has spent time at. He is passionate about working with kids and participated in a program to speak with youth about life choices. His file contains hundreds of accreditations and certifications from 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, every few days.
“He was always eager to help [when he was out],” Linda said. “He was one of those people where if everybody was setting stuff up for a function, he would jump right in. You didn’t have to ask him. He would, you know, see that someone needed help and just do it. Everyone adored him. Everyone who knew him that I knew of just adored him. He was just a likable guy.”
The State of Montana has stolen the most important years of Bernard’s life. Despite his passion for working with youth, he will likely never have a child of his own. And the years of wrongful incarceration have taken a severe toll on his health. He will never get the 37 years back, but we hope to help him live a life outside for his remaining years.
The Montana Board of Pardons and Parole will review Bernard’s case on July 21. Help us draw attention to how continuing to wrongfully incarcerate him is unjust:
1. Find the graphic below on our Facebook (@MTInnocenceProject) or Instagram (@BigSkyInnocence), and share it to spread awareness about Bernard’s case.
2. Comment your thoughts about Bernard’s case on the Facebook or Instagram post. We will collect the comments, and send them to the Board for consideration.
3. If you would like to provide a more thorough letter of support, please email firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line: Bernard.
“I still have my pride,” Bernard said. “I can still hold my head up high and know that that is not my category of character. But every day I wake up, no matter what time, and I still got these four walls on me.”
Bernard has already spent 37 years in prison for a crime he did not commit. Show your support for Bernard’s release so he can enjoy his remaining years with family.