COLUMBUS - A man who said the shooting death of his neighbor during a dispute over $35 was an accident was found guilty of murder Wednesday.
A Stillwater County District Court jury deliberated for about two hours before finding 49-year-old Jeffrey Hardman guilty of deliberate homicide for the death last Oct. 15 of Michael Blattie.
The jury also found Hardman guilty of tampering with evidence for burying the pistol used in the slaying.
Judge Blair Jones set a tentative sentencing date of Oct. 18.
Hardman showed no reaction when the verdict was read at 4:40 p.m. Jones ordered him returned to the Yellowstone County jail, where he has been held on $1 million bail since his arrest last October.
The verdict ended a three-day trial at which prosecutors argued that Hardman killed his 33-year-old neighbor over a $35 debt. Hardman told jurors Wednesday morning that the gun discharged by accident during a struggle with Blattie on the front porch of his home on Molt-Rapelje Road.
Hardman lived next door on the ranch property owned by Blattie's family. Blattie's father, Harold Blattie, is a former Stillwater County commissioner who now works as the executive director of the Montana Association of Counties, an organization that represents county interests to the Legislature.
Harold Blattie, his wife, two sons and several family friends attended all three days of the trial. Family members hugged one another and cried after the guilty verdicts were announced.
Blattie was shot once in the abdomen and died at the scene. Hardman was arrested 15 days after the shooting and hours after he confessed details of the fatal encounter to a Billings pastor.
The pastor, Robert Griggs, was among the nearly 20 witnesses called by Stillwater County Attorney John Petak and Assistant Attorney General Brent Light.
Griggs told the jury that Hardman described how Blattie punched him twice in the face before he pulled a gun from his waistband behind his back. During a struggle, Hardman testified, Blattie pushed the hammer of the revolver back with his hand and the gun fired.
But several witnesses, including Hardman's daughter-in-law and an emergency room doctor, told the jury that Hardman had no injuries on his face in the hours and days after the shooting.
During his testimony, Hardman said he was scared of Blattie, was in no shape to fight him and took the gun with him because he was angry Blattie would not return his phone calls when he was trying to collect his $35.
"When Mr. Blattie didn't have your money, he paid," Light said while questioning Hardman. "He paid with his life, didn't he?"
"He's deceased, yes," Hardman responded.
Hardman also admitted that he buried the gun in a field after the shooting. The gun has not been found.
During his closing statement Wednesday, Light said Hardman killed Blattie intentionally because he was angry that he had not repaid the $35. After leaving a threatening message on his telephone, Hardman went to confront Blattie. When Blattie didn't have the cash, Light said, Hardman pulled a pistol and shot him down.
"Michael Blattie, he did nothing to deserve getting shot on his own front porch," Light said.
Nothing Hardman did after the shooting supports his claim at trial that the shooting was an accident, the prosecutor said. Instead of helping Blattie when he was shot, Hardman concealed the weapon and lied to investigators for more than two weeks, Light said.
Hardman was the only witness called by the defense. His court-appointed attorney, Steven Scott, argued during his closing statement that killing a man over $35 made no sense. The shooting, Scott said, was an accident, but Hardman feared that no one would believe him because the victim was the son of a well-known and respected former county commissioner.