HELENA — Christopher Lee Gleed of Helena will get a new trial after a ruling Tuesday in which the Montana Supreme Court vacated his conviction for scalding his 3-year-old son.
Gleed was sentenced to 20 years in prison in January 2013 for the crime, but continued to maintain his innocence.
The incident happened May 2, 2012, when prosecutors say the boy was submerged in a bathtub filled with 130-degree water. The boy was taken to a burn center in Salt Lake City, where he spent six weeks.
A jury convicted Gleed on Dec. 19, 2012, after a two-day trial.
Central to the Supreme Court’s decision to grant Gleed a new trial was District Court Judge Jeffrey Sherlock’s ruling during the initial trial not to allow time for Gleed’s expert witness to testify.
The witness, a California doctor named Jerold Kaplan, was prepared to detail how the burns on Gleed’s son were consistent with accidental burning. However, Kaplan was traveling from New Zealand to California at the time the defense wanted him to testify. Sherlock ruled against delaying the trial.
The Montana Supreme Court, in a unanimous decision, ruled that Sherlock abused his discretion as a judge when he denied the continuance and that Kaplan should have been allowed to testify.
“The interests of justice and Gleed’s right to a fair trial necessitated the grant of his motion for continuance for a day and a half in order to allow Dr. Kaplan to testify,” the Supreme Court’s decision said.
The court’s decision cites the record from Wednesday, Dec. 19, the day on which the court denied the continuance, and the day on which the jury convicted Gleed.
“Defense counsel advised, ‘Your Honor, we cannot get our expert here. And so I would request that the Court recess until we can get our expert here, and I suspect that is Friday,’” the record said.
“The court responded, ‘Okay. I’ll have to deny that. I’m sorry.’ There is no further discussion or explanation of the matter in the record,” the Supreme Court’s decision said.
“Notably absent from the record is any inquiry from the District Court or the County Attorney regarding whether Dr. Kaplan was actually available to testify and what arrangements had been made by the defense counsel to secure his presence at the trial on Friday,” the decision said.
The Supreme Court maintains that Kaplan’s testimony was critical to ensuring that Gleed receive a fair trial, especially because his defense counsel told jury members they would present expert testimony in the trial’s opening arguments.
Also during the trial, the prosecution was able to present expert witnesses who testified the burns on the boy were indeed consistent with child abuse.
“Here, Dr. Kaplan’s testimony was not merely cumulative or of questionable importance — to the contrary, it was critical in establishing Gleed’s defense,” the decision said.
“Consequently, the jury was tasked to deliberate a case that presented an expert testimony as to causation from the State without the opposing expert viewpoint that Dr. Kaplan would have provided,” it said.
At Gleed’s sentencing, Kaplan was quoted by the IR as saying: “They just sentenced an innocent man.”
County Attorney Leo Gallagher, who prosecuted the case, said the defense should have informed the court about the need for a continuance earlier in the proceedings.
“The defense lawyer didn’t bring that up with the court at any of the pretrial hearings and indicated that he would be ready for trial,” he said. “The state was willing to have the expert testify by deposition or video or however they (the defense) wanted to proceed, and the defense was not able to accommodate that.”
Gallagher did not offer any opinions on the Supreme Court’s decision.
The Supreme Court’s decision concluded that the case will go to a new trial.
“We reverse Gleed’s conviction, vacate the District Court’s judgment, and remand this matter for a new trial in a manner consistent with this Opinion,” the decision said.