MISSOULA — Montana Innocence Project client Dale Hanson lost his petition for post-conviction relief at the Montana Supreme Court.
The Whitefish man was convicted in 1995 of sexual assault and deviate sexual conduct, and served 10 years in prison for the crimes against a child. However, he has maintained for more than 20 years that he did not abuse his girlfriend's son.
Since his release roughly a decade ago, Hanson has been hiding from law enforcement because he refuses to register as a sexual offender. As a result, a warrant was issued for his arrest.
"We never would have agreed to come on as counsel if we didn't believe in his innocence," Montana Innocence Project legal director Larry Mansch said this week. "But I don't know that there are any avenues for us to go down since the Supreme Court decision."
Mansch said retired University of Montana law professor Jeffrey Renz was lead counsel on Hanson's case, and he did not know whether Renz had plans to pursue the matter in federal court. The Innocence Project signed on as co-counsel when Renz took a leave of absence for a summer.
Renz could not be reached early last week for comment.
The Montana Supreme Court ruled the lower court did not abuse its discretion in Hanson's case, as he alleged.
The order said Hanson and his girlfriend at the time sometimes showered with her son, and the boy testified he and Hanson showered together at times. The boy testified that he and Hanson washed each other's genitals and Hanson told the boy to perform oral sex, and he did so, the order said.
In 1995, a jury convicted Hanson, and the Montana Supreme Court upheld the decision.
But Hanson has maintained his innocence.
Earlier, a witness for Hanson who is a therapist said that nationwide, both counselors and prosecutors were overzealous in finding child abuse during the time that Hanson was convicted, and authorities sometimes manipulated children into believing abuse took place when it hadn't.
Hanson's lawyers have noted that his steadfast insistence he did not abuse the boy robbed him of benefits he would have had while incarcerated – and that admitting to the allegations might have kept him from landing behind bars in the first place.
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"Mr. Hanson could have drawn a lighter sentence and possibly have avoided prison, if he had admitted to something he did not do and submitted to treatment for a condition that he did not have," an earlier court document said. "Nevertheless, he maintained his innocence."
The court filing said his housing and confinement conditions would have improved had he registered as a sexual offender.
Hanson's lawyers have alleged the state deliberately suppressed evidence favorable to their client. They also argued the lower court abused its discretion multiple times and delayed the case in "egregious" ways.
According to Hanson's attorneys, a Flathead County detective, now dead, interfered with witnesses who wanted to testify on Hanson's behalf, and thus, interfered with his right to due process.
"The state's response argued that the information set forth by Hanson did not constitute newly discovered evidence and argued that, because (the detective) was deceased and had been for several years, it could not specifically respond to the allegations against her," read the Montana Supreme Court order.
In 2009, Hanson's failure to have a current registration as a sex offender led to a warrant for his arrest, according to the court order issued earlier this summer.
In his quest for post-conviction relief, Hanson petitioned the Flathead County District Court, but he missed three depositions, according to the order. He failed to appear — despite the court's demands — because he did not want to be arrested on the outstanding warrant.
"Allowing a litigant to ignore a court order to appear for a deposition because of an outstanding warrant cannot be tolerated," said Justice Laurie McKinnon in the order.
The order also noted Hanson was given advance notice he could lose his case if he failed to appear. Hanson had requested to appear via teleconference in order to answer questions without fear of arrest.
"In its order compelling his attendance, Hanson was expressly warned that his failure to attend the third deposition could result in the District Court dismissing his petition with prejudice," the order said.
The court did so, and the state high court affirmed the ruling: "The District Court did not abuse its discretion by dismissing Hanson's petition for post-conviction relief."
Hanson remains in hiding and has been considered a fugitive from the law.