Wrongful convictions have occurred in Montana. There is no doubt that other cases have occurred and will occur in the future. Although DNA technology is a major scientific step forward, many cases simply do not have forensic evidence (and therefore cannot conclusively be proven or disproven). In one such instance, Jimmy Ray Bromgard spent 14.5 years in Montana State Prison for a crime which he did not commit.
On March 20, 1987, a young girl was attacked in her Billings home by an intruder who had broken in through a window. Based on the victim’s recollection, police produced a composite sketch of the intruder. An officer familiar with him thought Jimmy Ray Bromgard resembled the composite sketch. Bromgard eventually agreed to participate in a lineup, which was also videotaped. In the live proceedings, the victim picked out Bromgard but was not sure if he was the right man. After the victim was shown the videotaped footage of Bromgard, she said she was “60%, 65% sure.” When asked at trial to rate her confidence in the identification without percentages, she replied, “I am not too sure.” Still, she was allowed to identify Bromgard in court as her assailant. Bromgard’s assigned counsel never objected to the in court identification. At trial, the prosecution’s case revolved around the identification and the misleading testimony of the state’s forensic expert. A forensic expert testified that hairs found at the scene of the crime were indistinguishable from Bromgard’s hair samples. He further testified that there was less than a one in ten thousand (1/10,000) chance that the hairs did not belong to Bromgard. This damning testimony was also fraudulent: there has never been a standard by which to statistically match hairs through microscopic inspection. The criminalist took the impressive numbers out of thin air. Bromgard’s defense counsel was woefully inadequate. Other than the forensic evidence, the only other physical “evidence” was a checkbook from the victim’s purse that was found on the same street where Bromgard lived. His attorney did no investigation, hired no expert to debunk the state’s forensic expert, filed no motions to suppress the identification of a young girl who was, according to her testimony, at best only 65% certain, gave no opening statement, did not prepare a closing statement, and failed to file an appeal after Bromgard’s conviction. Bromgard testified that he was at home and asleep when the crime occurred. None of his fingerprints were found in the house, nor were any found on the checkbook that was discovered on his street. Nevertheless, based on eyewitness misidentification, unreliable and limited science, forensic science misconduct, and bad lawyering, Bromgard was convicted and sentenced to 40 years in Montana State Prison.
The Innocence Project began working on Bromgard’s case in 2000. Students located evidence and worked with Bromgard’s post-conviction attorney to have it released for testing. Prosecutors consented to testing and had trial evidence sent to the laboratory for testing. The results indicated that Bromgard could not have been the perpetrator. On October 1, 2002, Jimmy Ray Bromgard officially became the 111th person in the United States to be exonerated by post-conviction DNA testing. Jimmy Ray Bromgard was eighteen years old when he was convicted of this brutal crime. He spent fourteen and a half years in prison before DNA testing proved his innocence. Jimmy is not alone. Other wrongful convictions have occurred and will continue to occur in Montana because our justice system is based on humans – and therefore will always be prone to human error. In cases like Jimmy’s, the wrongfully convicted can be integrated back into the community as a productive member of society. But for others who have been wrongfully convicted and executed, there is no opportunity for restitution and healing for the errors of the justice system. There is only a grave.
For more information on the wrongfully convicted see The Innocence Project