Monday, September 2, 2019
The Montana Supreme Court has reversed the conviction of an attorney for the murder of his wife.
The divided court rejected the claim of a prejudicial 15-year delay in prosecution but found that the comments of a deceased doctor at the autopsy were hearsay offered for its truth.
The evidence established that the couple had had a pattern of heated disputes including just before her death
In the afternoon on July 30, 1999, Don Lyman (Lyman) saw the Lairds arguing outside of their trailer home. Laird chased Kathryn around the yard, smacked her in the head with a plastic bag filled with cookies, and repeatedly said something along the lines of, “You bitch, you burnt my fucking cookies.” Later that day while Kathryn was at work, Warren, Kathryn’s boss at her evening job, observed a second heated conversation between Laird and Kathryn. Warren’s husband eventually asked Laird to leave; Laird complied. Kathryn worked late that night, leaving after 11:00 p.m.
Kathleen and Eric Anderson (the Andersons) spent their weekends recreating on the water around Fort Smith. When they were in town, the Andersons stayed in a camper that was parked on a lot near the Lairds’ trailer and near the walking trail that ran from the afterbay to the trailer park. They overheard the Lairds arguing over the course of several weekends before Kathryn’s death. Kathleen took a shower close to midnight on July 30, 1999, and could clearly hear the couple arguing in raised voices through the vent
in the shower ceiling. A male voice stated, “You fucking bitch,” over and over again, while a crying female voice repeated, “No, no, no.” The argument went on the entire time Kathleen was in the shower, but then suddenly completely stopped. Eric also heard the Lairds arguing that night.
The Andersons heard a vehicle start and saw a male driver depart shortly thereafter.
Laird did not testify at trial, but a few years after Kathryn died, Laird applied to practice law in Missouri. The Missouri Board of Law Examiners (Board) questioned Laird about the circumstances surrounding Kathryn’s death. Laird answered the questions under oath and, accordingly, the State read the transcript from that questioning into evidence at trial. When asked whether he and Kathryn verbally argued during their marriage, Laird told the Board that Kathryn was “argumentative during her premenstrual time.” Laird classified their disagreements as Kathryn being argumentative with him, not the other way around, and further testified that they never had any physical confrontations.
Laird explained the circumstances surrounding Kathryn’s death, specifically his perception of the events on the night of July 30, 1999, to the Board. He was supposed to go to Billings the next morning to do law work and wanted to get rest before making that trip. Kathryn came home from work later than normal that evening and the two got into a discussion around 11:30 p.m. It was “during her premenstrual period” so “she was very tired and very grouchy.” Laird told Kathryn that she should quit her morning job, because the money she made was not worth her having to wake up so early, at 4:30 or 5:00 a.m., and being so tried. Kathryn “wanted to argue” about her morning job and “things in general,” but Laird wanted to go to sleep. The two argued for ten or fifteen minutes, Laird “refused to have an argument because it was a small point and it was late at night and [he] had to go to Billings” the next day.
The victim did not show up for work on the following day and Warren contacted him to search for her
Warren began to think of all the places that she and Laird searched, and realized that they had not searched one parking area, the “overflow” parking lot near the afterbay. While driving over a bridge, Warren stopped her car to look over toward the overflow parking lot. From there, she could see something floating on the water’s surface. It looked like some sort of air bubble from that distance. Warren then drove down to the overflow parking lot, where she could see that it was Kathryn’s body floating in the water, face down. Realizing Kathryn was floating face down and therefore no longer alive, Warren drove to her friend’s home and asked her to call 911. Dispatch said Officer Morrison was already at the Lairds’ trailer, so Warren drove over there. Ranger Bredow also responded to Laird’s emergency call, and she arrived at the Lairds’ trailer just after Warren. When Warren arrived, she said that she found Kathryn in the water near the overflow parking lot.
When the victim's mother and sister were notified
Mary Lou and Sheri went to the Laird’s trailer. Both women noticed a pair of jeans, wet from the knee down, hanging over the bathtub. They also noticed Laird’s mother pick up a second pair of wet jeans from the hallway floor. Laird grabbed the jeans out of his mother’s hands, angrily telling her to put the jeans down, that those were the jeans he was wearing when he pulled Kathryn’s body from the water. Mary Lou learned Laird planned to cremate Kathryn, but asked if he would let her take Kathryn’s body back to Texas for a funeral. Laird angrily insisted on cremation, but Mary Lou hired an attorney to prevent as much, knowing Kathryn would not have wanted to be cremated. The family eventually held a funeral service in Texas, where Kathryn’s family laid her to rest. Laird left Montana a few days after Kathryn’s death.
And time passed until
the State formally charged Laird with deliberate homicide in September 2014. Laird pleaded not guilty and the case moved towards trial. Before trial, Laird filed a motion to dismiss for preaccusation delay, arguing the fifteen-year delay between Kathryn’s death and the official accusation violated his due process rights. The District Court reserved its ruling on Laird’s motion.
Seventeen witnesses testified but
The State did not, however, present testimony from Dr. Mueller or Dr. Bennett, the forensic pathologists who performed the autopsies on Kathryn’s body, during its case-in-chief. Dr. Mueller died before Laird’s 2016 trial. The State did not call Dr. Bennett. The State claimed that, in 2012, investigators interviewed Dr. Bennett who recalled injuries to Kathryn’s neck and opined that Kathryn was strangled and throttled. However, Dr. Bennett subsequently changed his opinion regarding Kathryn’s injuries and, in 2016, observed one premortem injury to Kathryn’s hand and no other incapacitating premortem injuries. The State attributed Dr. Bennett’s change of opinion to the fact that, in 2015, the State of Montana stopped contracting with Dr. Bennett to perform its autopsy work.
Instead, the State introduced evidence of Dr. Mueller’s autopsy and the appearance of Kathryn’s postmortem body though the testimony of Bullis, Agent Jackson, and Kathryn’s family members. The State sought to admit some statements Dr. Mueller made during the first autopsy through Agent Jackson. Agent Jackson explained the tone of Dr. Mueller’s autopsy changed when Dr. Mueller observed the condition of Kathryn’s neck. Agent Jackson testified that “Dr. Mueller pointed to multiple areas of hemorrhaged
blood in the muscles of Kathryn’s neck and said, ‘This is troubling.’ He said it repeatedly.” Laird objected to Agent Jackson’s recitation of Dr. Mueller’s “troubling” statements on hearsay and confrontation grounds. The District Court overruled the objection, permitting Agent Jackson to testify about Dr. Mueller’s “troubling” statements not for the truth of the matter they asserted—that the hemorrhaged blood in Kathryn’s neck muscles was troubling—but instead for the limited purpose of explaining what Agent Jackson did next in his investigation.
Dr. Bennett testified for the defense and had his credibility attacked by the State.
The jury found Laird guilty of deliberate homicide. After trial, Laird renewed his motion to dismiss for preaccusation delay. The District Court ultimately denied the motion, explaining its reasoning in a post-trial order. The District Court sentenced Laird to incarceration for 100 years with no time suspended.
The court here on the delay
We first consider whether Laird suffered actual, substantial prejudice from the State’s delay, as evidenced by definite, nonspeculative proof. Laird argues he was prejudiced—as in, his right to a fair trial was impaired—by the death of two witnesses (Dr. Mueller and Renner) and by the loss of physical evidence (tissue samples)...
Laird has not met his heavy burden of showing actual, substantial prejudice as evidenced by definite, nonspeculative proof. Because Laird did not prove he was actually prejudiced by the delay, we do not address the State’s reasons for the delay or perform a balancing inquiry. Compelling Laird to stand trial did not violate the Due Process Clause’s fundamental conception of justice that defines our community’s sense of fair play and decency. We accordingly affirm the District Court’s order denying Laird’s motion to dismiss.
Sufficiency of evidence
We have never before required expert medical testimony to establish a victim’s cause of death in homicide cases. Instead, our case law reflects the well-established concept that direct and circumstantial evidence exist on equal footing and that circumstantial evidence is sufficient to prove any element of an offense and to sustain a conviction.
But the Mueller evidence was hearsay
Exacerbating the error, the State mishandled Dr. Mueller’s opinion of Kathryn’s bruises when it read Laird’s Missouri Bar testimony into the record...
Based on the manner in which the State elicited testimony about Kathryn’s bruising from its witnesses and the State’s comments about Kathryn’s bruising in opening and closing statements, we conclude Dr. Mueller’s “troubling” statements were out-of-court statements offered in evidence to prove the truth of the matter asserted—they were hearsay. The State repeatedly presented evidence of Kathryn’s “troubling” and “unexplained” neck bruises to the jury, but did not provide a qualified expert’s opinion. As hearsay, Dr. Mueller’s “troubling” statements were inadmissible. We accordingly conclude the District Court abused its discretion by allowing them into evidence.
After considering the circumstances surrounding Dr. Mueller’s “troubling” statements, we can come to no other conclusion but that the statements’ primary purpose was to create an out-of-court substitute for trial testimony. First, there was no ongoing emergency to address when Dr. Mueller made the statements—Kathryn was already dead and an investigation into the circumstances surrounding her death had ensued. Further, the circumstances in which Dr. Mueller made the statements were sufficiently formal—he was performing an autopsy at the request of law enforcement and methodically noting the state of Kathryn’s postmortem body while law enforcement officers observed. Just because Dr. Mueller did not make his statements under oath or memorialize them into a sworn writing does not render them too informal to qualify as testimonial.
The effect of Dr. Bennett's testimony
When the State told the jury Dr. Bennett was “terminated” during its closing argument, it undermined a crucial defense witness’s testimony and, consequently, undermined Laird’s entire defense. See State v. Cunningham, 2018 MT 56, ¶¶ 24, 26, 390 Mont. 408, 414 P.3d 289 (explaining that jurors may attribute significant weight to expert medical testimony). Because Dr. Bennett’s credibility was inappropriately challenged when the State explained the attorney general’s office “terminated” Dr. Bennett in its closing argument, we conclude Dr. Bennett’s testimony does not render the error in admitting Dr. Mueller’s “troubling” statements harmless.
The court majority reversed the conviction based on the hearsay violation.
Justice Ingrid Gustafson, concurred in part and dissented in part.
I concur in the Majority’s holding that the District Court abused its discretion by admitting statements Dr. Mueller, a forensic pathologist, made while he performed the autopsy when Dr. Mueller was unavailable to testify at trial such that reversal and remand for a new trial is appropriate. I do not concur in the remainder of the majority opinion.
Laird asserts he suffered actual, substantial prejudice from the State’s delay in prosecution by the death of Russell Renner. According to Laird, “[i]n his statement, Renner said he saw the Lairds arguing outside their trailer on the night [Kathryn] died. Renner then saw Laird drive away, followed closely by Kathryn in her car. Renner saw Laird and Kathryn return to the trailer, then saw one of the cars leave.” Laird asserts Renner’s statement was important as it contradicted the testimony of the Andersons in key respects and corroborated statements he made to the Missouri Bar. The majority concludes that since Renner’s statement was not included in the record, we have no evidence to consider and thus Laird failed to present definite, nonspeculative proof Renner’s death prejudiced him. This conclusion is rather disingenuous as the State did not refute Laird’s characterization of Renner’s statement and, in essence, conceded it to be inconsistent with the testimony of the Andersons and corroborative of Laird’s statements to the Missouri Bar. Anyone with trial experience knows the tremendous value of presenting an independent witness, with no apparent motivation to deceive, who corroborates the defendant’s version of events. I would conclude Laird was prejudiced by Renner’s death.
Although the majority takes great pains to point out the number of witnesses called by the State and details incidents of verbal altercation between Laird and Kathryn and an incident where Laird threw a bag of cookies at Kathryn, hitting her in the head, in the days preceding Kathryn’s death, the majority overlooks the most critical element the State must prove—that the manner or cause of death was at the hands of another rather than resultant from accident, suicide, or natural cause.
In viewing the State’s case-in-chief evidence in the light most favorable to the prosecution, although a rational trier of fact could conclude the Lairds had arguments in the days preceding Kathryn’s death, it could not conclude beyond a reasonable doubt that Kathryn’s death resulted from a criminal element versus accident or suicide.
Justice Beth Baker dissented
I join the Court’s Opinion on Issues 1 and 2. I dissent from its analysis of Issue 3 and would affirm Laird’s conviction.
It doesn’t matter whether Dr. Mueller’s statement about the bruising on Kathryn’s neck was offered for the truth of the matter asserted. The statement was excepted from the hearsay rule and not otherwise inadmissible.
Justices Jim Rice and James Jeremiah Shea joined in the dissenting opinion.
The case was the subject of a 2016 Dateline story. (Mike Frisch)