Jessy Lee Williams

A Yellowstone County Sheriff's deputy takes Jessy Lee Williams into custody after Williams was found guilty of three felony counts in District Court in November.

CASEY PAGE/Gazette Staff

The Yellowstone County Attorney's office has denied it withheld evidence from defense attorneys during a home invasion rape trial last November. 

In March, two defense attorneys sought having all charges against their client, Jessy Lee Williams, dismissed because the Yellowstone County Attorney's office had withheld evidence regarding evidence tampering at the Montana State Crime Lab. 

The Montana State Division of Criminal Investigations has continued to investigate drug tampering at the Montana State Crime Lab by former employee and police officer Steve Brester, a lab technician suspected of stealing drug evidence. 

Two attorneys, Major Crime Unit Public Defender Tom Bartleson and private attorney Daniel Ball, said they were not told that the lab technician suspected of stealing drug evidence had handled some of the evidence in their case. They were also not told of the extent of the tampering or how long the tampering lasted.

Senior Deputy County Attorney Brett Linneweber said this was a "baseless allegation" and the motion had no merit.  

Linneweber said Brester's only contact with the evidence was mailing it back after it was tested. 

In criminal cases the prosecution has a duty to provide the defense with any evidence that might exonerate or clear those accused. 

Linneweber said the Yellowstone County Attorney's Office had no reason to believe the evidence had been mishandled.

He said the defense also has access to the Montana State Crime Lab and can request the information.

"The defendant's motion is a factual and legal farce," Linneweber said. 

Yellowstone County District Court Judge Gregory Todd will hear arguments and testimony on May 24. 

A Brady violation objection, which means withhold evidence that might exonerate an accused person, have overturned convictions in Montana as recently as November when Richard Raugust accused of murdering his friend in 1997, was granted a new trial by Sanders County District Judge James Wheelis. The defense said testimony was withheld from the defense that could have cast some of the evidence in a different light. That trial is still pending.

In a 2013, a dissenting opinion written by Alex Kozinski, the former Chief Justice for the Ninth Circuit of Appeals, said there was an "epidemic" of Brady violations taking place across the country. He cited more than 20 cases that had come before the Ninth Circuit between 2007 and 2013 regarding Brady violations. 

Kozinski's dissent revolved around the conviction of Kenneth Olsen, who was accused of manufacturing ricin, a highly toxic poison. Former Montana State Crime Lab employee, Arnold Melnikoff, who was working in Washington State at the time, determined the pills found in Olson's possession could be ricin. 

Before joining the WSP, Melnikoff started and ran the Montana State Crime Laboratory. While there, he conducted a hair sample analysis that resulted in the conviction of Jimmy Ray Bromgard of Billings for raping an 8-year-old girl. When a DNA analysis exonerated Bromgard after he had spent 15 years in prison, officials in Washington and Montana were made aware. 

According to Kozinski's dissent, Washington launched an investigation into Melnikoff’s “misconduct involving courtroom testimony and/or case analysis."

A month before Olsen’s trial began, a third Montana inmate was exonerated due to Melnikoff's case involvement. 

Melnikoff’s employment with the Washington State Police was eventually terminated, Kozinski said. The Washington Court of Appeals found "Melnikoff was incompetent and committed gross misconduct.”

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Justice reporter for The Billings Gazette.