The United States District Court for the District of Montana, Missoula Division found in favor of Montana Innocence Project’s client Katie Garding yesterday on her claim that she received ineffective assistance of counsel, violating her Sixth Amendment right to counsel.
Katie was wrongfully convicted in 2011 of Vehicular Homicide based largely on the testimony of an incentivized witness who received leniency in his own criminal case for testifying against her. At trial, Katie’s attorney Jennifer Streano relied heavily on the false accusation to prove Katie’s innocence. Although she cross-examined the State’s law enforcement witnesses who theorized about how Katie’s vehicle was the striking vehicle in the accident, Streano failed to consult an accident reconstruction expert to argue it was not Katie’s vehicle.
MTIP obtained evidence that the State’s theory violates the laws of physics, meaning it is impossible for Katie’s vehicle to have been the striking vehicle. This evidence was presented to Montana’s Fourth Judicial District Court in Katie’s Petition for Post Conviction Relief and later to the Montana Supreme Court when we appealed the district court’s denial of the petition.
Both courts found Streano was not ineffective when failing to hire an accident reconstruction expert but this failure was based on a strategic decision. Streano expressly disavowed this both in her testimony and in the affidavit she submitted to the courts, stating this was a “terrible oversight” and not strategy.
After exhausting all state court remedies, MTIP filed a Petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus in federal court in July 2020. Judge Dana Christensen issued the court’s opinion yesterday. Judge Christensen wrote that while attorneys are given the discretion to make strategic decisions, they must first gather sufficient evidence to base their strategy on. Streano knew Katie’s vehicle had minimal damage, so there was no strategic reason for not consulting an expert in accident reconstruction. Judge Christensen wrote that this prejudiced Katie’s chances of proving her innocence because without evidence to the contrary, the State’s theory that her vehicle struck and killed the victim was the only evidence the jury had to consider.
“Katie has been a constant beacon of hope throughout this process,” MTIP Legal Director Caiti Carpenter said. “The fight isn’t over, but after 12 years, with an army of family, friends, lawyers, and experts, someone finally heard our plea. It is now up to the State to decide what resources it is willing to dedicate to maintaining an unjust conviction.”
After spending 10 years wrongfully imprisoned, Katie was granted parole in December 2021. Although no longer wrongfully incarcerated, Katie is still serving a sentence for a crime she did not commit by being supervised on parole. She is out, but she is not free. This decision means Katie could be exonerated. The order gives the Missoula County attorney’s office 30 days to vacate Katie’s conviction and refile the charges against her. Additionally, the State Attorney General’s Office may seek to appeal the Federal District Court’s decision to the Ninth Circuit.
“I am so relieved that we have finally had a breakthrough,” Katie said. “I can not express how thankful I am to the Montana Innocence Project, as well as those who have stood beside me and supported me throughout this journey.”
Read more about Katie and her innocence case here.