The Montana Supreme Court has reversed the rape, burglary and sexual assault conviction of a Deer Lodge man and sent the case back to Third District Court.
In the appeal, Bruce Anderson, 67, argued the District Court erred by denying his motion to strike a juror for cause.
The matter relates to the comment of a juror during a recess prior to the jury being seated.
In the Supreme Court’s unanimous decision, written by Justice Jim Rice, the court outlined an unusual scenario that began when a juror, during a recess after jury selection and after the court had instructed the jurors not to discuss the case, volunteered to the bailiff the juror was “pretty sure the defendant is guilty.”
While the person did not express an unequivocal opinion that Anderson was guilty, when asked by the State whether an opinion of Anderson’s guilt had already formed, they responded, “I have a leaning.” When asked to clarify, the juror reaffirmed the opinion and explained it was based on questions defense counsel asked during the questioning of potential jurors. The juror admitted being unsure whether they would “be able to push those sort of things all the way to the side.” When the state asked if they could follow the jury instructions and suspend a decision until the end of the trial, the juror said “I will 100 percent try,” but added the disconcerting caveat that “Life moves forward and there’s certain things from my past, (in) all of our lives that we can’t remove [sic].”
When defense counsel asked the juror whether they would be troubled by Anderson’s decision not to testify, the individual responded, "That’s one of the things. The belief that an innocent man has nothing to hide prevails slightly above ... the idea of being accidentally trapped by a trick question from the other side and counsel." When asked about “giving Mr. Anderson a fair shot” the juror reiterated a commitment to “100 percent try” but again qualified the response, explaining, “it’s very hard without hearing everything ahead of time … I believe I could. I do believe that. There just is a slight bit of preconception stepping in, forward now. And that’s why I told the bailiff why, what I wanted you to be aware of.”
The Supreme Court decision stated that the case record, based on a totality of circumstances, reveals a troubling pattern that should have resulted in the juror’s removal, adding that the individual’s statements raised serious questions regarding an ability to be a fair and impartial juror.
The decision cited the fact that the juror reaffirmed his "leaning," or resisted recanting it, several times.
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The decision concluded that the District Court "abused its discretion" in denying Anderson's motion to dismiss the juror. "The error is structural in nature, requiring reversal," the opinion stated.
Anderson was released from Montana State Prison on Thursday. He was serving 20 years with 10 suspended for burglary; 25 years with 10 years suspended for rape, with the conditions that he complete sex offender programs one and two. For sexual assault he was sentenced to six months in the county jail with no time suspended. The three sentences ran concurrently, and at the time of sentencing he was given credit for 366 days served.
Upon his release, Anderson was immediately rearrested on a warrant issued by Powell County Attorney Kathryn McEnery.
According to court records, the incident occurred on August 20, 2015 after Anderson met the woman and they took a motorcycle ride to a local bar. Later that night, Anderson came to her home but she was sick and told him to leave; later, according to court documents, he returned, removed the screen from her bedroom window, crawled through it and had sex with her while she was drugged or under the influence of alcohol and unable to defend herself.
Anderson is currently free on a $100,000 bond and is subject to a number of conditions set by the court including that he must wear a GPS monitor, cannot leave the state, has surrendered his passport and cannot contact with victim or witnesses.
McEnery emphasized the importance of the public to set aside opinions and to remember that Anderson is presumed to be innocent until proven guilty.
A trial date has not yet been set.