The Montana Innocence Project is reviewing a 1983 homicide that relied in part on now-debunked science to imprison a Billings man for 110 years.
The Innocence Project has not yet taken up the case against Bernard Pease Jr., saying more evidence is needed for the group to pursue litigation. But it is working to determine what evidence still exists and has deposed two witnesses.
A jury convicted Pease in 1984 of deliberate homicide in the death of 23-year-old Maria Philbrick, also known as Maria LaFramboise.
Philbrick’s body was found naked, with her throat slit and stab wounds to the chest on Dec. 1, 1983, beside a dumpster in the alley behind the Pease family stove business at 122 North 12th St. No blood was found on site, and investigators determined Philbrick was killed in a back room of the Pease business, Fireplace Stove Specialists.
Philbrick, of Sisseton, South Dakota, had been living in Billings for only a couple of months and was working as a prostitute at the time of her death. She was last seen by her pimp, John Salas, outside of the Empire Bar, 2713 Montana Ave., around 3 a.m. on Thanksgiving, a week before her body was found.
The medical examiner in the case could not determine the exact date or time of death. Prosecutors theorized that Philbrick was likely killed around 3:30 or 4 a.m. on Thanksgiving Day, Nov. 24, according to court documents filed by the Montana Innocence Project.
The case against Pease relied in part on microscopic hair analysis, which compares factors like the color, thickness and texture of hair strands to determine if evidence found at the scene matches hair samples provided by suspects. The practice has since been discredited, with the FBI announcing in 2015 that 90 percent of the cases it testified in using microscopic hair analysis were erroneous.
“Hair is not like fingerprints, because there aren’t studies that show how many people have identical-looking hair fibers,” wrote then-FBI Director James Comey in a letter to governors in 2016. The letter warned that FBI examiners may have misled judges and juries for decades by testifying about hair evidence in a way that “went beyond the limits of science.”
The hair analysis in Pease’s case was provided by a former Montana State Crime Lab director, Arnold Melnikoff, who came under fire after his hair evidence testimony helped wrongfully convict three men, including Jimmy Ray Bromgard, who spent 15 years in prison for a high-profile child rape case out of Yellowstone County.
At trial, defense attorneys brought in their own expert witness, who contradicted Melnikoff’s testimony, saying a hair found under Philbrick’s fingernail did not belong to Pease. Both the defense expert and Melnikoff testified that their conclusions were not absolute, and that hair analysis is highly subjective.
Prosecutors brought in a witness who testified that her boyfriend had told her he witnessed Pease stab and kill Philbrick. The boyfriend later denied making such a statement. That inconsistency was part of Pease's unsuccessful appeal of his conviction.
Prosecutors also introduced evidence that secretions found on a used condom in the room where Philbrick was killed could belong to Pease, to his father, Bernard Sr., or to Pease’s brother-in-law, Michael Franklin. The condom also contained blood that could have belonged to Philbrick, a forensic scientist testified.
Prosecutors also wrote that a used condom found in the room where prosecutors believe Philbrick was killed was the same brand as condoms later found in Pease’s bedroom. The brand was “distinctive,” the affidavit reads.
Pease was one of four people with access to the room in the family business where prosecutors say Philbrick was killed, according to the affidavit.
A sleeping bag was found about a month after the murder in a nearby fenced area, bloodied and with cuts consistent with stab marks. A witness told investigators that Pease owned the sleeping bag, but Pease told police he did not.
Attorneys for Pease appealed the conviction to the Montana Supreme Court but the court upheld the conviction. They then filed a writ of habeas corpus, but were denied relief, a decision later upheld by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. Yellowstone County District Judge Gregory Todd served as defense co-counsel for Pease in the case.
The Montana Innocence Project believes the Billings Police Department and the Montana Crime Lab may have evidence that could help push the case forward.
But unearthing that evidence takes time, and sometimes a court order, said Toby Cook of the Montana Innocence Project. There’s still no guarantee the group will take on the case.
“A lot of it will depend on what evidence and what witnesses still exist,” Cook said in a phone interview Monday.
Attorneys with the Montana Innocence Project conducted "perpetuation" depositions of Pease’s parents, Bernard Sr. and Betty, on Nov. 17. Perpetuation depositions are done when witnesses may not be available for the life of the case. Pease’s parents are elderly.
The Montana Innocence Project is a branch of the national Innocence Project, which has exonerated 351 people since its start in 1992. Its mission is to exonerate innocent people and prevent wrongful convictions.
Since its inception in 2008, the Montana chapter has secured two exonerations and favorable outcomes, such as a vacated conviction and order for retrial, for three other clients. It typically litigates five or six cases at a time but investigates anywhere from 30 to 50 cases at a time for possible litigation.