The state of Montana has denied a $97 million claim from a Sanders County man who spent nearly two decades in prison for a murder he didn’t commit before being exonerated in 2016.
In May, Richard Raugust sent the state's Risk Management and Tort Division a demand letter asking for financial 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.
Three years ago, Raugust became one of the first exonerees for the Montana Innocence Project, a group that works with people who are wrongly imprisoned to reverse their convictions. Investigators with the project worked for a decade before getting a Sanders County judge to dismiss deliberate homicide charges against Raugust in 2015. A judge there found serious problems with evidence suppression at Raugust's original 1998 trial for the murder of his best friend, Joe Tash.
The state said Monday the demand letter was technically denied due to the timeline for review expiring. It had 120 days to review the letter once it was filed. A spokesperson said the state was unable to comment about specific merits of the demand letter because of possible ongoing litigation.
The state is staying coordinated with Sanders County in investigating the claims Raugust made, because Sanders County is also named in the letter. Commissioners in Sanders County were not available Friday or Monday to discuss the claim. It's also unclear if Sanders County could settle a claim with Raugust after the state denied it.
Last week, Raugust said he's given notice to Sanders County that he plans to sue them, as well as the state and a total of 22 entities, many that were included in his demand letter.
“When the complaint hits the public, they’re going to sh-- their pants,” Raugust said. “The things they did were unbelievable, from the judge to the prosecutors to the police that did the investigation."
The demand letter Raugust sent the state in May laid out some of the injustices he experienced since his arrest 22 years ago. Affidavits and investigations done by the Montana Innocence Project, which helped get Raugust out of prison, raised questions about how the investigation into Tash’s murder was conducted.
Excerpts from interviews with people present the night of the murder reveal another man had confessed to Tash's murder several times. One affidavit, of the jury foreman for Raugust’s 1998 trial, shows a Sanders County judge pressured the jury into deciding to convict.
Mary Harker, who was on the jury, said in an affidavit in 2012 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 needed to file the demand with the state before he could file a lawsuit in District Court, under a process laid out in state law. He said last week he was disappointed, but not surprised, it was denied.
“I was hopeful that they would do it the easy way, but the thing is we’re going to put everyone’s dirt out in the open now,” Raugust said. “It’s kind of weird they would require you to do something that there’s a 0% to slim chance they’re going to respond. It’s unethical to me. They know I’ve been injured. It’s obvious that I’ve been injured. There’s no question I’ve been injured in numerous ways and in ways I haven’t even processed yet. For them to just dismiss it like that, it’s their prerogative, I guess."
Raugust said he will file in Lewis and Clark County District Court in Helena in the coming months.
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