The Lewis and Clark County Attorney’s Office is resisting a bid by attorneys for James George Stiffler to dismiss a deliberate homicide charge filed against him for fatally shooting a man who was apparently ransacking his home.
Stiffler pleaded not guilty to the felony in late May.
Quentin Rhoades, a Missoula attorney representing Stiffler, filed a request on May 28 to have the charge dismissed because 665 days had passed before Stiffler was charged.
“The pre-accusation delay is a violation of Stiffler’s right of due process because Stiffler can establish actual prejudice to his ability to defend himself, and the prosecution cannot meet its burden of justification for its prejudicial delay in the filing of the information,” stated Rhoades’ request to District Court.
Melissa Broch, a deputy Lewis and Clark County attorney, wrote in her June 17 response that charges were filed after the county received a report from an independent consultant hired to evaluate evidence and the crime scene.
Her argument against dismissing the charge detailed why the case should continue and asked for the opportunity to provide more information after a July 31 evidentiary hearing.
The county attorney’s office noted that Rhoades argued in the motion to dismiss that Stiffler suffered prejudice because any gunshot residue deposited when Henry Thomas Johnson was shot on May 22, 2013, was degraded by March 2015 when charges were filed.
Broch wrote that handling of the case is also faulted by the defense because the pillowcase containing items owned by Stiffler and his wife that was found by the back door to Stiffler’s home was not taken as evidence.
However, Broch wrote, case law doesn’t require gathering or preserving exculpatory evidence.
“It’s only obligation is not to destroy such evidence or interfere with the defendant’s ability to gather it,” she continued.
Broch also wrote that establishing prejudice, “actual, substantial prejudice,” isn’t met in the request to dismiss the charge.
Prejudice must rise to the level of preventing a fair trial, and loss of evidence or witnesses are the most common forms of prejudice claimed as a result of pre-accusation delay, Broch’s response stated.
Her court filing noted that within eight days of the alleged homicide, Stiffler was represented by an attorney, Royal Davis, “who by his own account has extensive experience in investigations in general and crime scene processing specifically.
“The defendant and Davis were put on notice as of May 30, 2013, that detectives did not believe the physical evidence supported the version of events the defendant gave on May 22, 2013. For that reason, the detectives advised the defendant and Davis that (Lewis and Clark County Attorney Leo) Gallagher was considering filing criminal charges against the defendant for Johnson’s homicide.”
Within less than a month of the shooting, Rhoades was hired, as was an investigator and evidence technician.
The defense team had the ability to gather any evidence it wished in the 665 days between the alleged homicide and the date charges were filed in Justice Court, Broch's court filing said.
Even if the court concludes Stiffler suffered prejudice, Broch wrote, “the defense cannot and has not established the State purposely or negligently delayed filing charges in order to gain a tactical advantage.”
According to the timeline and events contained in Broch’s objection to dismissing the charges, Stiffler called 911 about 2:40 p.m. on May 22, 2013, to say he’d shot an intruder at his home on Canyon Ferry Drive.
Her objection to dismissal also details subsequent events leading up to the filing of the charge.
Al Knauber can be reached at email@example.com