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HELENA - A divided Montana Supreme Court has ordered a new trial for a Missoula man convicted of murder in the beating and drowning of another man.

William J. Matt was convicted in the June 2004 death of 53-year-old Steven Rodriguez, who was robbed, beaten and thrown in an irrigation ditch.

Matt, now 38, was sentenced to 100 years in prison with no parole.

Court records said Matt, Andrew Greybull and Kevin Oldhorn took turns beating Rodriguez, who was too drunk to defend himself. Afterward, the three took Rodriguez's firefighting boots, pawned them for $15 and bought a half-gallon of vodka.

Greybull, 21, and Oldhorn, 25, pleaded guilty and were sentenced on murder charges. Each received 30 years in prison.

At sentencing, Deputy County Attorney Andrew Paul called Matt the "ringleader" in the crime. He also cited Matt's criminal history, including 30 convictions since 1989, in asking District Judge John Larson to impose the maximum penalty.

The Montana Supreme Court, in a 4-3 ruling last week, reversed Matt's conviction and ordered a new trial on the grounds that Matt was not present when the trial judge, prosecutor and defense attorney met in chambers during Matt's trial. Larson made key rulings on evidentiary motions and denied a defense motion to dismiss the charges.

"At the outset, the judge inquired of defense counsel, 'Do you have Mr. Matt coming?' to which defense counsel responded, 'I don't mind if he's not here.' A discussion took place off the record, and then, back on the record, defense counsel added, 'I don't need my client here. This is legal. He doesn't get any of this anyway,' " Justice James C. Nelson wrote in the majority opinion.

The high court ruling said a defendant's right to be present at a hearing is protected under the Montana Constitution and that Matt did not affirmatively waive his right to be there.

"The in-chambers hearing held in Matt's absence at the close of the state's case-in-chief was a critical stage of his trial, Matt did not validly waive his right to be present at the hearing, and failing to include him at the hearing violated his right under Article II, Section 24 of the Montana Constitution to appear and defend in person," Nelson wrote.

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Chief Justice Karla Gray and Justices Patricia Cotter and W. William Leaphart joined in the majority opinion.

Justice John Warner, in dissent, said: "No previous Montana precedent concerning the right to be present requires the State to satisfy a 'burden.' "

"Today, the court sneaks up on the state by creating a new burden it must satisfy if prejudice is alleged," Warner wrote.

District Judge Laurie McKinnon, sitting for Justice Brian Morris, joined in the dissent.

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