James Ronald Wilson's right to a fair trial was not violated during the selection of a jury at his murder trial, the Montana Supreme Court has ruled.
Wilson, 53, is serving a 220-year prison sentence for the deaths of two men and the wounding of a third during a 2009 shooting at the Whiskey Gulch Saloon in Colstrip.
In an appeal filed last year, attorneys for Wilson argued that he should be granted a new trial in Rosebud County District Court because he was not present during a sidebar conference during jury selection.
After the sidebar, Judge Gary Day announced that Wilson's attorney and the prosecution agreed to dismiss a potential juror who was also on the trial witness list.
In a unanimous opinion issued Tuesday, a five-member panel of Supreme Court justices said Wilson had failed to show that his right to a fair trial was violated. The opinion was written by Justice Brian Morris, with justices Laurie McKinnon, Beth Baker, Patricia Cotter and Jim Rice concurring.
In the opinion, Morris said that the justices did not consider the issue of whether Wilson's absence during the sidebar was cause to order a new trial. Instead, the opinion focused on whether Wilson missed a critical stage of the trial at which he did not waive his rights to be present.
Morris said that a transcript of the sidebar does not reveal that the lawyers or judge directly questioned the potential juror outside Wilson's presence. After the sidebar, the juror was excused by the judge and did not sit on the panel that later convicted Wilson, Morris said.
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Morris also noted that neither Wilson's defense nor the prosecution had to use one of their peremptory strikes to remove the potential juror.
As a result, the opinion states, Wilson's right to participate in the selection of a fair and unbiased jury was not violated.
"Though he was not present when that (sidebar) discussion occurred, Wilson possesses no right to have any particular juror ... sit as a member of the jury," Morris said.
Wilson, of Lame Deer, was convicted at a six-day trial in July 2011 of deliberate homicide for the death of Heath Becker, attempted deliberate homicide for the wounding of Jason Burnett and negligent homicide for the death of Spencer Benson.
The three men were shot at the Whiskey Gulch Saloon in Colstrip on Dec. 10, 2009.
At his trial, Wilson claimed he shot the men in self-defense after he was assaulted and thrown out of the bar for starting a fight.
Prosecutors said Wilson returned to the bar 30 minutes later with a handgun and shot the three men before he was tackled and disarmed.