POLSON – Felony charges against a Pablo man accused of a “vicious” attack on a jailer last month were tossed out by a judge Friday afternoon.
He also ordered the defendant released from custody immediately, as long as there are no outstanding warrants pending against him in a tribal court.
District Court Judge James Manley laid the blame on the Lake County Attorney’s Office, which he found unreasonably delayed arraigning Eugene Seyler on counts of aggravated assault, and assault on a peace officer, “for reasons that are not justified, and frankly, hard to believe.”
Lake County Attorney Mitch Young said afterward he intends to appeal the ruling.
Seyler was accused of beating a jailer in the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribal Detention Center in Pablo on May 22 – an attack recorded by the facility’s security cameras – and made an initial appearance before Justice of the Peace Joey Jayne the next day. She set his bond at $150,000.
Seyler had been incarcerated in the Lake County Detention Center in Polson ever since.
Deputy County Attorney Jessica Cole-Hodgkinson did not file to move for leave to file an information until June 10, 18 days later.
Seyler’s attorney, public defender Ashley Morigeau, filed a motion to dismiss the charges June 3, after her client had then been in jail for 11 days waiting to be arraigned. His release came 28 days after he made his initial appearance, and two days after his arraignment was continued pending Friday’s hearing.
Cole-Hodgkinson, the only witness Morigeau called, said she was waiting for the medical records of the victim, CSKT detention officer Monty Nelson, to determine whether a charge of attempted deliberate homicide was warranted.
Seyler had charges of attempted deliberate homicide from a separate incident dismissed by the county attorney’s office without prejudice – meaning charges can be refiled later – over the winter, pending further investigation after a question of self-defense was raised in that case.
That case involved allegations Seyler had repeatedly stabbed a neighbor, and that investigation has been hampered by an inability to locate several witnesses, according to court documents.
Seyler had been picked up on a public nuisance charge May 22, when the alleged attack occurred.
While on the stand Friday, Cole-Hodgkinson described what she had seen on the videotape, and said “the severity of the attack” and “the way the defendant appeared to lie in wait” for the jailer contributed to her contemplating attempted deliberate homicide charges.
The prosecutor alleged that the tape shows Seyler ramming his body into the door of his cell three to four times, then retreating to his cell bunk, casually resting an elbow on it “with a seemingly pleasant look on his face,” and then immediately charging Nelson when the jailer opened the cell door.
Court documents state Nelson was able to crawl to another cell during the attack and hand his keys to another inmate, who then unlocked his cell door, pulled Seyler off Nelson and shoved Seyler into his now-empty cell and re-locked the door, halting the attack.
Morigeau had few questions for Cole-Hodgkinson. She asked if Montana law allowed prosecutors to amend charges after they are filed (yes), if a defendant is responsible for prosecuting himself (no), and whether the state can hold a defendant for an unlimited time without charging him (no).
On cross-examination by Young, Cole-Hodgkinson said that while, legally, prosecutors can amend charges, “If he had pleaded guilty (to lesser charges), I would have been precluded from filing” an attempted deliberate homicide charge.
When Cole-Hodgkinson testified that she had spoken with Jayne, the justice of the peace who initially saw Seyler, to ask if the JP had found probable cause to hold him, Morigeau seemed shocked. She called it “ex parte contact with a judge” that “I have no previous knowledge of.”
Manley shut the line of questioning down quickly, saying it was hearsay, and telling Young, “If you wanted Judge Jayne to testify, you should have called her.”
The judge had lots of questions for Cole-Hodgkinson, and the two sparred over a “10-day rule” that appears to be a standard long used in the 20th Judicial District for getting charges filed against defendants in the “reasonable amount of time” called for by Montana law.
Manley cleared the court of onlookers briefly when Morigeau asked Cole-Hodgkinson if she had once fired an administrative assistant for failing to get required documents filed within the 10-day guideline. Young argued it was a personnel matter and confidentiality concerns exceeded the public’s right to know.
Testimony indicated that the county attorney’s office uses a board to track the cases it handles and get documents filed on time, and that the deadline for Seyler should have been June 2, but was mistakenly listed on the board as June 3.
That, Manley noted, was the date of the primary election. (Young, running for a third term, was defeated by public defender Steve Eschenbacher in the Republican primary that day. He remains the county attorney until January.)
“You went intentionally beyond that day?” he asked Cole-Hodgkinson.
“I did,” she said.
“And what did you do on June 4 to expedite the filing?” Manley asked. Cole-Hodgkinson said she was still waiting for more information from an investigating officer concerning the attempted deliberate homicide case.
“And on June 5 – now we’re 13 days out – what did you do?” the judge asked. Cole-Hodgkinson said she met with the officer on June 5 or 6, and there was no information that would help support an attempted deliberate homicide charge in the alleged jail attack.
“And did you rush down and file a motion for leave?” Manley asked.
“I reviewed the evidence to see if it would support” a greater charge, she answered.
“And on Monday, June 9, what did you do? Now we’re 17 days out,” the judge said.
Cole-Hodgkinson said she drafted the affidavit and thought it got filed that day.
“That’s the day I signed it,” she said.
Manley said the 18-day gap between Seyler’s initial appearance and the filing of charges “exceeds any case found in Montana history for which a delay was found to be reasonable.”
“These are obviously very serious charges, and you’re always reluctant to dismiss them,” he said.
“But that seriousness should have made the County Attorney’s Office less willing to engage” in delays that might put the case in jeopardy, he added.