KALISPELL (AP) — Recently unsealed documents in the 1997 murder of Larry Streeter reveal Jesse Ernst may have attempted to fire a shotgun during the crime.
That was not the story that came out in court.
Two years ago, Ernst, now 24, was found innocent by reason of mental disease or defect.
After a year in a mental hospital, he was released and is now working, planning to become a missionary, and "doing remarkably well," said his lawyer, Phyllis Quatman.
Neither the jury nor Ernst's first sentencing judge knew that he had confided to his attorney that he tried to fire a malfunctioning shotgun during the businessman's murder, the documents show.
At trial, Ernst said he "couldn't" shoot Streeter. All prior evidence indicated that Ernst's older brother, Ted, was the only one who shot during the murder and that Jesse Ernst was nearly paralyzed with fear.
"It clearly would have had an impact" on the sentence, said Ted Lympus, the judge who initially presided over the case.
Ernst originally pleaded guilty to the murder. Although no one accused him of shooting Streeter, he was considered culpable in the crime because he assisted his brother, Ted, who is now serving a life sentence with no chance of parole.
Lympus sentenced Jesse Ernst to life, with parole eligibility after 25 years.
"My rationale was Jesse's culpability wasn't as high as Ted's because he didn't pull the trigger," Lympus said.
"Had I known that (Ernst tried to shoot), I might very well have looked at his situation differently," he said.
Jesse Ernst later withdrew his guilty plea and went to trial.
Ernst was originally represented by Kalispell attorney David Ortley. Ortley was eventually ordered by the Supreme Court to testify about what Ernst told him. Breaching the bond of confidentiality with his former client was something Ortley did reluctantly.
"I felt very strongly that I should not be compelled by a court order to reveal any confidential information given to me in the course of representing Jesse," Ortley said.
He did testify in a closed hearing that Ernst told him he attempted three times to shoot during Streeter's murder. He was never called by then-County Attorney Tom Esch to tell that story to a jury.
Ortley has said he never directly asked Ernst if he tried to shoot with the intention of killing Streeter.
Quatman, Ernst's current attorney, maintains that Ernst may have been trying to fire warning shots.
Two years after the trial, Ortley finds it troubling that the information is now public.
He said the information that Ernst tried to shoot would have made a difference in the outcome of his case if it was disclosed at trial.
Richard Corcoran was one of the jurors who found Ernst innocent because of mental defect of a dozen theft and burglary charges and Streeter's murder.
He still often thinks about the case, he said.
"It might have" affected the verdict if jurors knew that Ernst had tried to fire his gun instead of hanging back in the woods while his brother shot, as they were told, Corcoran said.
But then, "The defense won the jury over so overwhelmingly, I don't know if anything would have affected it."
Quatman convinced the jury that Ernst was so disabled by a mental disorder that he was easily controlled by his brother, who masterminded their crimes.
She said Ernst has no memory of telling Ortley that he pulled the trigger.
Quatman said she isn't disturbed the information has been unsealed.
"I don't care," Quatman said. "It helps Jesse" if it's interpreted that he tried to fire shots into the air to warn away Streeter, but it no longer matters. Ernst is establishing a new life, with no contact with his brother but "a respectful relationship with his parents," she said.
He no longer lives in the Flathead Valley, but still lives in Montana under state supervision.
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