HELENA — The Montana Supreme Court has ordered a new trial in a Billings homicide, ruling the defendant was wrongly denied the opportunity to question whether a key witness could accurately recall the details of the shooting because she may have been under the influence of methamphetamine.
Joseph Polak II, 36, was convicted of deliberate homicide in the April 2015 shooting death of Scott Hofferber at a trailer park. He was sentenced to 80 years in prison for that and other crimes, including evidence tampering.
Polak testified he fired in self-defense because Hofferber, 29, was high on meth and was moving toward him with a sharp weapon.
Hofferber's girlfriend, Andrea Sattler, testified the men were arguing and Hofferber offered Polak the weapon, indicating he'd need it during their fight.
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"Sattler's and Polak's testimonies conflicted in ways that were potentially decisive as to whether Polak justifiably used force against Hofferber," the justices wrote in a 5-0 ruling Tuesday.
Polak's attorneys also sought to introduce evidence that a meth pipe was found on a sponge Sattler was using to clean a trailer house near where the shooting happened. Justices agreed he should have been able to present that evidence to challenge the accuracy of Sattler's perceptions and memory of the shooting and to contradict her testimony that she was not high that night.
"Sattler's testimony served as the crux of the state's case," Justice James Jeremiah Shea wrote. "Polak's proposed line of questioning was relevant to Sattler's accuracy of her perception the night of the shooting and relevant to whether the jury would believe Sattler's or Polak's version of events."
The court noted that Polak said both Hofferber and Sattler had been using meth that night and toxicology tests on Hofferber confirmed that he was.
Justices also overturned an evidence tampering conviction against Polak, saying the state produced no evidence that he disposed of the .45 caliber handgun used to kill Hofferber and did not even question him at trial about how or whether he got rid of the gun.
Because the court ordered a new trial, the justices declined to address Polak's claim of ineffective assistance of counsel because his attorney didn't ask the court to automatically remove a juror who said he was a distant relative of Hofferber.