HELENA — The Montana Supreme Court on Tuesday upheld the conviction and 130-year prison sentence of a Great Falls man for sexually assaulting one young boy and abducting and torturing another.
A five-judge panel unanimously rejected Nathaniel Bar-Jonah's myriad claims of illegal searches, improper use of evidence in court, unfair trial and biased jurors. One by one, the high court upheld rulings by District Judge Kenneth Neill of Great Falls.
Bar-Jonah, 47, was convicted in 2002 of kidnapping and assault involving a 15-year-old boy and his 12-year-old cousin in 1998 and 1999.
Police also considered Bar-Jonah their chief suspect in the 1996 disappearance of a 10-year-old Great Falls boy, Zachary Ramsay. Murder and kidnapping charges against him were dropped in 2002, however, after the boy's mother said she was prepared to testify she believed her son was still alive.
Investigators suspected Bar-Jonah butchered the Ramsay's body, then cooked the body parts for meals fed to unsuspecting neighbors. Zachary's body was never recovered.
In his appeal to the Supreme Court on the kidnap and assault convictions, Bar-Jonah contended the case was flawed from the beginning because it started when he was illegally stopped by police officers while walking near an elementary school in December 1999.
He said authorities had no justification to stop and question him, but the Supreme Court saw it differently. Police were aware that Bar-Jonah had been convicted 22 years earlier in Massachusetts of kidnapping and trying to murder two young boys while posing as a police officer.
Given that background, the fact that Bar-Jonah was walking near a school at a time when children would be walking to school and was dressed in a police-style jacket was sufficient reason for the officers to stop him, the court said.
Officers had sufficient evidence to suspect that Bar-Jonah had or was about to commit the crime of impersonating a police officer, the justices held.
Likewise, they said the items seized in two searches of Bar-Jonah's apartment were legitimately taken because they were related to the suspected crimes of pretending to be a police officer and carrying a concealed weapon.
Cameras, photo albums with pictures of children, and other photos and negatives were "reasonably related" to the Bar-Jonah's motive for committing the crime of dressing up like an officer in order to gain the confidence of his young victims, the court said.
Because the search warrants were tied to the charges against him at the time, the searches were not a mere pretext that authorities used to look for evidence linking Bar-Jonah to Ramsay's disappearance, the court added. If that was a motive for the searches, it does not matter because they also had a legitimate reason, it said.
The Supreme Court concluded Judge Neill made no mistake in refusing to move the trial a second time, from Butte to Billings, because of pretrial news coverage. While the reports of possible cannibalism probably stirred strong feelings, the news coverage "did not go beyond the objectivity expected of the press," Justice John Warner said for the court.
He also said Bar-Jonah failed to show he was prejudiced by the Butte trial and that moving the trial to Billings would have served any useful purpose.
The court found no fault with letting jurors see Bar-Jonah's photo albums containing hundreds of pictures of children, including the two victims. The books served a valid purpose of showing why Bar-Jonah befriended young boys and supporting testimony of the victims, the court said.
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