COLUMBUS — Last Oct. 29, two weeks after his neighbor was found gunned down on the porch of a Molt ranch house, Jeffrey Hardman met with two investigators to talk about the shooting.
“What took place up there?” Stillwater County Undersheriff Woody Claunch pressed Hardman at the end of the 40-minute recorded interview.
“Up where?” Hardman responded.
“At Michael’s place,” Claunch said.
“I don’t want to say any more,” Hardman responded, ending the conversation.
On Wednesday, Hardman will give his account of the death of Michael Blattie to a Stillwater County jury.
Prosecutors rested their case against Hardman on Tuesday, the second day of the murder trial before Judge Blair Jones. Hardman is charged with deliberate homicide for the death Oct. 15 of Michael Blattie, the 33-year-old son of a former Stillwater County commissioner.
Prosecutors have also charged Hardman, 48, with tampering, alleging he buried the gun used to shoot Blattie and has never revealed its location.
The prosecution case began Monday and included testimony from about 20 witnesses. Stillwater County Attorney John Petak and Assistant Attorney General Brant Light announced shortly before 3 p.m. Tuesday that they had submitted all their evidence.
Hardman’s public defenders, Steve Scott and Scott Spencer, told Jones they would not make an opening statement and would call only one witness, Hardman.
Jones sent the jury home for the day after telling them the trial would resume at 9 a.m. Wednesday.
Hardman’s lawyers have said in court records that he acted in self-defense when he shot Blattie once in the abdomen. Hardman alleges that he went to Blattie’s house to collect a $35 debt and was confronted by an enraged Blattie.
Hardman’s account of the confrontation was told to the jury on Tuesday by a Billings pastor, Robert Griggs, who said Hardman came to the Faith Chapel Church on Oct. 30 and confessed to killing Blattie.
Griggs told the jury that Hardman was emotional and distraught during their hourlong conversation that began at about 10 a.m. Hardman told Griggs that Blattie had “black eyes” when he came through a front porch screen door, slammed it and began yelling at him.
Griggs said Hardman described how Blattie hit him above the eye and in the mouth, splitting his lip and loosening a tooth. That’s when Hardman reached behind him and grabbed a revolver from his waistband.
The men struggled for control of the pistol, and it fired into Blattie’s abdomen. Griggs said he believes Hardman described Blattie swinging at him even after the gunshot.
“It was my impression that there were still punches thrown” by Blattie after he was shot, Griggs said.
Petak and Light aimed much of their case at discrediting Hardman’s account of the fatal encounter. Numerous witnesses, including Hardman’s daughter-in-law and a Billings emergency room doctor who examined Hardman two days after the shooting, said they saw no injuries on the man’s face.
On Tuesday, Dr. Thomas Bennett, a forensic pathologist, testified that Blattie could not have thrown a punch after he was shot. Bennett said the bullet entered Blattie’s abdomen and passed through several organs before striking his spine. The injury would have caused Blattie to drop immediately to the ground, Bennett said, and he likely died within minutes.
A firearms expert from the Montana State Crime Lab told jurors that a bullet fragment from Blattie’s body matched .38 or .357-caliber fired bullets recovered from the property where Hardman lived next door to Blattie.
Griggs said Hardman told him he buried the gun in a field. Claunch, the undersheriff, told jurors that the gun has never been recovered.
Claunch also said Hardman had several chances to make his claim of self-defense before he was arrested 15 days after the shooting. Evidence that led to the arrest included a signed written confession found in Hardman’s bedroom.