COLUMBUS — A Molt man who gunned down his neighbor during a dispute over a $35 debt was sentenced Thursday to spend at least 30 years at the Montana State Prison.
Stillwater County District Judge Blair Jones sentenced Jeffrey Hardman to a total of 110 years in prison for deliberate homicide and tampering for the Oct. 15, 2009, shooting death of Michael Blattie.
The judge called the case a disturbing reflection of a society that continues to devalue human life.
“Thirty-five dollars versus the value of a human life?” the judge said. “Where have we gone, and how low can we go?”
Jones rejected a request from Hardman’s public defender for a sentence of 10 years on both charges, calling the recommendation “wholly inappropriate” given the nature of the case and Hardman’s criminal past.
Instead, Jones agreed with a prosecution recommendation and sentenced Hardman, 49, to 100 years in prison for the murder of Blattie. He added an additional 10 years on the tampering charge, and then ordered that Hardman not be eligible for parole until he had served 30 years of the sentence.
The judge also granted a request from Blattie’s family and ordered Hardman to pay $35 every year of the sentence on the anniversary of the murder. The money will come from Hardman’s prison earnings and will be paid to the Stillwater County Crime Victims Compensation Fund, which contributed $3,500 toward the cost of Blattie’s funeral.
Hardman showed little reaction to the sentence. Without facing Blattie’s parents, two brothers and others seated only a few feet away, Hardman briefly apologized and said he hopes the family can forgive him.
“I mourn in my own spirit,” he said.
Harold Blattie, the victim’s father and a former Stillwater County commissioner, read a poignant statement describing his son as fallible but generous. Michael Blattie didn’t always make the right choices, he said, but his 33-year-old son was always willing to help others who “most of us would ignore.”
“It was his generosity that led to his fate,” he said.
Harold Blattie said Hardman’s own actions were a reflection on the killer’s character. Society deserves to be protected from him, he said.
“It is said that a dog that bites once can never be trusted,” Harold Blattie repeated several times during his testimony. “I believe that to be true.”
Stillwater County Attorney John Petak said he believes the killing was partly motivated by Hardman’s sense that the victim had shown him disrespect.
Petak called Hardman as a dangerous man who has two prior felonies on his record, including a conviction for carrying a concealed weapon.
“This was a stone-cold deliberate killing without one redeeming action by the defendant,” Petak said.
Hardman was convicted at the close of a three-day trial in September. At trial, Hardman testified that the shooting was an accident when he went to confront Blattie over a $35 debt. The men lived in separate houses on the same ranch property off the Molt-Rapelje Road.
Hardman told jurors that Blattie stormed out of the house and then punched him at least twice. Hardman said he brought a pistol because he feared Blattie, and then drew the weapon from his waistband when Blattie attacked him. He said the gun fired during a struggle.
Several of Blattie’s friends found him mortally wounded on his front porch at about 5 p.m. Despite efforts of the friends and paramedics to save him, Blattie died at the scene.
Hardman returned to his house after the shooting and didn’t report the incident. He later admitted to burying the gun in a field, and the weapon has never been recovered.
More than two weeks after the shooting, Hardman told a Billings pastor about the incident and said he intended to turn himself in. He was arrested later that day when he arrived home.
Prosecutors disputed Hardman’s description of the shooting at trial, saying there was no evidence to support the claim of self-defense. There were no marks on Hardman’s face from being struck, they said, and Hardman’s actions were those of a man trying to evade responsibility.
The jury deliberated for about two hours before finding Hardman guilty.