A man who was exonerated after spending almost two decades in Montana's prison system is asking the state to pay nearly $97 million in compensation for the years of freedom he lost, a flawed investigation and legal process, and medical costs related to claimed mistreatment during his time incarcerated.
Richard Raugust was one of the first exonerees for the Montana Innocence Project, a group that works with people who are wrongly imprisoned to reverse their convictions. After a decade fighting through the legal system on his own, Raugust began working with lawyers from the project in 2009.
It took years of digging by project investigators and lawyers, but in 2015 a Sanders County judge dismissed the deliberate homicide charges against Raugust. The judge found serious problems with evidence suppression at the 1998 trial for the murder of Raugust's best friend, Joe Tash, after a night of drinking at the Naughty Pine Saloon in Trout Creek.
Now Raugust, 53, is asking Montana to compensate him for what he calls the “grossest miscarriage of justice our society can offer.” On May 13, he submitted what's called a demand letter to the Risk Management and Tort Defense Division of the state Department of Administration.
The letter outlines Raugust’s claims against the state — from what he says was an incredibly inept investigation pinning Tash's murder on him, to a judge who pressured a jury into the wrong decision, as well as medical, physical and emotional abuse in state prisons.
Raugust's letter says he suffered what "has amounted to torture, taking years of plaintiff's life expectancy.”
Demand letters are the first step required before someone who was wrongly imprisoned can file a lawsuit in state District Court. The state Department of Administration has 120 days from receiving a letter to investigate and either grant or deny a claim.
The state gets about 750 such letters a year for all types of claims, for anything from a broken windshield or damage from a highway project to tort claims. The Department of Administration has until Sept. 13 to determine what will happen with Raugust’s case, said spokesperson Amber Conger.
For all claims, including things like property damage or vehicle collisions, the state determines a payment should be made about 51% of the time. Amounts depend on the type of claim, along with multiple other factors.
Claims like Raugust’s are uncommon, Conger said, with just a handful coming over the years.
The letter Raugust filed in May lays out a series of devastating allegations against the state that portray what losing nearly two decades of a person’s life in prison means. Loss of liberty is a commonly used term to umbrella the things most people don't even think twice about — driving to the grocery store to buy a candy bar, going on a first date, celebrating birthdays with family or a summer fishing trip to the river.
“Eighteen years and counting of physical, psychological and emotional pain and suffering,” reads one portion of Raugust's letter. He asks for $1 million a year from the date of his arrest, July 24, 1997, to the day the claim is settled — at least $22 million.
He also demands $7 million in punitive damages, $2 million in attorney fees to date, lifetime medical costs and related expenses, damages for deceit on behalf of law enforcement and others and any other remedies deemed appropriate. That tally reaches $97 million, Raugust said.
After the state dropped the charges against Raugust, he moved down to San Diego with his wife to start anew.
He’s trying to promote the book he wrote while awaiting the resolution of his case in Missoula, "Fishers Of Trout And Men: Protectors Of The Realm." It's a collection of poetry meant to help people going through times of stress.
In California, he’s working with combat veterans to “keep them on the straight and narrow.”
“I’m trying to keep busy and make some things happen so I can do more things,” Raugust said. “But being in prison for 18 years and undergoing a couple medical experiments by the doctors left my body beat up and torn down, so I can’t do anything I used to.”
Raugust once worked construction and renovation jobs to bring in some income, but he’s not able to now.
“It’s a real drag,” Raugust said.
The demand letter details some of the injustices Raugust said he’s dealt with since his arrest 22 years ago this month. He attached affidavits and investigations done by the Montana Innocence Project that helped secure his release from prison by raising questions about how the investigation into Tash’s murder was conducted.
Excerpts from interviews with people present the night of the murder, done by investigators with the Innocence Project, reveal another man had confessed to Tash's murder several times.
The demand letter also includes the affidavit of the jury foreman for Raugust’s 1998 trial, who said a Sanders County judge pressured the jury into deciding to convict.
Mary Harker in 2012 said the judge told the jury it would be “too expensive” to hold another trial and “the county could not afford it.”
“I considered this in making my decision, and I remember the jury talked about the expense of the a new trial, which was one of the pressures that led me to vote to convict Richard Raugust even though I believed the evidence presented at trial did not prove him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt,” Harker said seven years ago.
“ … This has been on my mind and on my heart ever since that jury service. It rises up and troubles me in the night. I was shocked at the way it ended and thought it was a miscarriage of justice,” Harker said in 2012.
Raugust said he was also mistreated while in state custody. He suffered from a lack of adequate pain management, substandard diet and being subjected to 17 hours of fluorescent light a day as punishment. He says he was harassed, intimidated and denied access to the outdoors and exercise on soft surfaces that could have helped ease a degenerative joint disease.
He was sent on several trips to the Glendive and Shelby prisons, during which he was subjected to long drives and being forced into physical positions that exacerbated existing medical conditions.
Raugust said he now loses muscle control from the waist down nearly every day because of how he was treated while in state custody. He also suffers from constant anxiety and worry, the result of nearly two decades of what he says were strip searches, prison rapes, showering in front of cameras and the loss of his basic human dignity.
The idea to submit the claim letter came after Raugust heard about a study resolution that passed in the most recent state Legislature. The proposal, carried by Rep. Joel Krautter, a Republican from Sidney, calls for an interim study on compensation for wrongly convicted persons.
Krautter said he first spoke to Raugust, who told him he was glad someone was addressing the issue, after the resolution passed with fairly strong bipartisan support.
Krautter's interest in financial compensation for people who were wrongly convicted sparked when the attorney learned about the Innocence Project while attending law school at the University of Montana.
“Getting exonerated, obviously that’s a big step. But I feel, as a society, if we've taken away someone’s liberty and imprisoned them for X amount of years, we have a duty to make things right,” Krautter said.
The existing options for people in Montana who have been wrongly convicted and seek compensation are fairly limited.
Thirty-five states and Washington, D.C., plus the federal government, have laws in place to provide some form of compensation.
In Montana, there’s no system for monetary aid, but state law allows for help paying for education. The problem with that, Krautter said, is the program isn’t funded.
That statute, passed in 2003, only applies to people who were exonerated with DNA evidence, which is a small subset of exonerees, said Frank Knaack, executive director of the Montana Innocence Project.
Twenty-six states allow for an annual compensation for the wrongly convicted, with amounts that range from as little as $5,000 a year in Wisconsin up to $200,000 in D.C. Others states, like Nevada, set the amount based on a sliding scale of how long a person was in prison.
Ten other states have some form of compensation, but not annual amounts. Fourteen have caps on how much can be awarded, ranging from $20,000 to $2 million.
Even if Montana's education provision was funded, Krautter said he doesn’t think paying for schooling is an adequate response to taking away years of someone's life.
His study specifically cites examining a fixed amount that could be awarded for each year a person wrongly spent in prison. The hope is that the legislators conducting the study, members of the Law and Justice Interim Committee, will draft legislation to consider in the 2021 session.
“We’re just trying to streamline the process and make a statement that as a society when the criminal justice system fails, we’re going to make it right,” Krautter said.
Without a compensation system, people are left with only one outlet: filing a civil lawsuit that could take years to resolve, Knaack said.
That doesn't help when people get out of prison and have immediate needs — food, housing, health insurance and more that can't be fulfilled with the hope of money coming down the road. People who have been wrongly imprisoned lose out on years of developing a career, and typically their family resources have also been used up battling the legal system.
“A lot of folks who are coming out don’t have access to wealth, where people their age had been able to build equity and move up in employment,” Knaack said. “The only real option people have is to file a federal lawsuit.”
Raugust said when he was released from prison, he had medical issues and needed a place to live, things he couldn't address without money. On top of the stigma attached to his situation, it was difficult to find work after his health deteriorated while incarcerated.
Some sort of guaranteed annual payment would have been a huge help, Raugust said.
"We're getting up there in age, and with 18-20 years of medical neglect, I mean I can barely walk and I'm in pain every time I get up," Raugust said.
Raugust said he suffered from a severe vitamin D deficiency in prison and that his hands hurt so badly they're rendered unusable at times. He has a box full of medical records, thousands of pages, documenting his conditions.
"I used to be in the construction industry, but that's out now that I'm crippled up," Raugust said.
When Raugust applies for other jobs, he said there's a "shadow cast over" him.
"It's an uphill battle when I got to fill out a job application. In an interview, they might ask if you've been in prison, or if they don't, they ask what happened to those 18 years," Raugust said. "They look at you sideways. There's always going to be doubters."
One of the few Montana examples of successfully securing compensation is Jimmy Ray Bromgard, who in 2007 reached a $3.5 million settlement, at the time the largest ever paid by the state for a civil rights violation. The money came five years after his 2002 exoneration.
Knaack said at least four other people in Montana have pending civil actions after their wrongful convictions were overturned — Cody Marble, Richard Burkhart, Fred Lawrence and Paul Jenkins.
Proving those cases can be difficult, Knaack said, because it’s not just showing a person was wrongly imprisoned, but that they were put there by intentional acts from law enforcement or prosecutors, had ineffective counsel, DNA was found after the fact, or other specific requirements.
“The people who have real opportunity to prevail in those civil cases, it’s not the total universe of people who were wrongly convicted,” Knaack said.
The Innocence Project supports an approach of annual compensation of at least $65,000 for people who have been wrongly convicted. An annual payment, besides providing immediate and reliable assistance, could also direct people away from civil lawsuits, which could result in large payouts that cost the state more overall, Knaack said.
“By setting it up this way, individuals are going to be less in need of civil actions,” Knaack said. “What we’re talking about is not bringing justice. It’s just a small piece of justice to those people whose lives were upended.”
The Innocence Project doesn’t want to bar civil suits, Knaack said, but supports mechanisms that cancel out their need.