The Montana Supreme Court has upheld the convictions of a Texas man found guilty of fatally shooting a Whitehall man and wounding two others on a remote road southeast of Butte in 2015.
But even though the state’s high court upheld the convictions of Tony Dwade Sawyer, 51, on direct appeal, it said in a 5-0 ruling dated Tuesday that he could pursue his claims of having ineffective defense counsel through separate post-conviction relief proceedings.
In his direct appeal, Sawyer said his defense counsel had “no plausible justification” for not objecting to admission of video interviews with Sawyer during trial. But the state’s justices said trial records don’t demonstrate reasons for that, and it could have been a coherent trial strategy.
“Answers to these questions would require speculation on our part,” they said in Tuesday’s ruling.
A jury in District Court in Butte found Sawyer guilty of deliberate homicide and two counts of attempted deliberate homicide in connection with a shooting that killed 37-year-old Joe Powers of Whitehall on Nov. 3, 2015. Steve Drury and Hunter Smith also were shot but survived.
Sawyer, Powers, Drury and Smith had smoked meth and gone into the hills south of Butte to shoot skeet, according to trial testimony. The night ended with Sawyer fatally shooting Powers in the back with a 9mm pistol, and wounding Smith in the face and Drury in the shoulder.
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Smith called 911 and police arrested Sawyer in Idaho Falls the next day after he packed a getaway vehicle and fled. In November 2016, then-District Judge Brad Newman sentenced Sawyer to three 100-year prison terms to run concurrently.
Sawyer, who was from Lubbock, Texas, met Drury in 2014 when they were serving time together in prison. Drury eventually got out, came to Montana and hooked up with Drury the day before the shooting.
The next night, all four decided to drive to a remote area near Fish Creek to shoot clay pigeons. They got stuck in the snow and as the others worked to free the vehicle, Sawyer disappeared into the woods. He shot the men shortly after that, according to testimony.
If Sawyer pursues post-conviction relief, it would start at the District Court level. For example, he could attempt to seek hearings and create a record of why his attorneys acted as they did during the trial.
Post-conviction relief proceedings themselves can end up before the Montana Supreme Court.