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State v. Laird

Supreme Court of Montana

August 20, 2019

STATE OF MONTANA, Plaintiff and Appellee,
v.
BRIAN DAVID LAIRD, Defendant and Appellant.

          Argued: May 1, 2019

          Submitted: May 7, 2019

          APPEAL FROM: District Court of the Twenty-Second Judicial District, In and For the County of Big Horn, Cause No. DC 14-68 Honorable Michael B. Hayworth, Presiding Judge

          For Appellant: Nancy G. Schwartz (argued), NG Schwartz Law, PLLC, Billings, Montana

          For Appellee: Timothy C. Fox, Montana Attorney General, Tammy K Plubell (argued), Assistant Attorney General, Helena, Montana Chad Parker, David Ole Olson, Special Deputy County Attorneys, Helena, Montana Gerald Harris, Big Horn County Attorney, Hardin, Montana

          OPINION

          Laurie McKinnon Justice

         ¶l A jury in the Twenty-Second Judicial District Court, Big Horn County, convicted Brian David Laird (Laird) of deliberate homicide. The District Court sentenced Laird to incarceration for 100 years with no time suspended. Laird appeals. He raises three issues, which we restate as:

1. Did the fifteen-year preaccusation delay unconstitutionally prejudice Laird?
2. Did the State present sufficient evidence in its case-in-chief to overcome Laird's motion to dismiss for insufficient evidence?
3. Did the District Court abuse its discretion by admitting statements a forensic pathologist made while he performed the autopsy when he was unavailable to testify at trial?

         ¶2 We conclude the fifteen-year preaccusation delay did not unconstitutionally prejudice Laird and determine the State presented sufficient evidence in its case-in-chief to overcome Laird's motion to dismiss for insufficient evidence. We further conclude, however, that the District Court abused its discretion by admitting the unavailable pathologist's statements. We therefore reverse this case on issue three and remand the case to the District Court for further proceedings consistent with this Opinion.

         FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         ¶3 In the early-morning hours of July 31, 1999, Kathryn Laird drowned in the afterbay area of the Yellowtail Dam of the Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area. The circumstances surrounding Kathryn's death were suspicious, and a criminal investigation ensued. Fifteen years later, in September 2014, the State charged Kathryn's husband, Laird, with deliberate homicide for Kathryn's death. Following a one-week trial, a jury found Laird guilty.

         ¶4 Kathryn grew up in Texas, where she and her siblings spent many hours swimming in their backyard pool. She had extremely poor eyesight and could not see without her glasses or contact lenses. Kathryn met Laird in college and they eventually married in February 1999. Kathryn had a dog, Ralphie, who she adored. In July 1999, the couple lived in a trailer park in Fort Smith, Montana, near the afterbay area of the Yellowtail Dam. A walking trail ran from the trailer park down to the afterbay area. Laird worked as lawyer in Billings and also worked as a fishing guide out of Fort Smith. Kathryn worked multiple jobs in the Fort Smith area. In the mornings, she worked with Greg Heidrich (Heidrich) at Quill Gordon's, a fly and tackle shop, where she set out a continental breakfast for fishing guests. In the evenings, she worked for Tanya Warren (Warren) at Bighorn River Country Lodge, a fishing lodge, where she provided the guests' dinner. Kathryn also periodically drove shuttles for fishing guests.

         ¶5 During its case-in-chief, the State questioned numerous witnesses who testified that Kathryn was unhappy in the days leading up to her death and that Laird and Kathryn argued throughout the day on July 30, 1999. A few days before Kathryn died, she spoke with her mother, Mary Lou, on the phone. Kathryn was upset and crying during their conversation. Kathryn also spoke with her brother around that time, and she was distraught and crying during their conversation as well.

         ¶6 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.

         ¶7 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.

         ¶8 Shortly after the argument ended, the Andersons heard a vehicle start. They looked outside and saw a person slowly driving the Lairds' white SUV, known by most to be Kathryn's car, by their camper and out of the neighborhood. Kathleen observed that the driver was a man. Eric assumed the driver was male because the person driving was large. Thankful it would finally be quiet because the man had driven away, the Andersons went to sleep. However, between 45 minutes and an hour later, the Andersons' daughter's dog, which was tied up outside, started barking loudly and became very upset. There was an open area between where the dog was tethered and the walking path that led down to the afterbay, and the dog was barking in the open area's direction. The dog was known to be very aggressive towards males, even male members of the Andersons' family.

         ¶9 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.

         ¶10 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.

         ¶11 Before the couple moved to Fort Smith, Laird would sleep in his car near the afterbay if he had to guide the next day. To avoid the argument that night, Laird got in his car, drove to that spot near the afterbay, and went to sleep. He awoke to Kathryn knocking on his car window; she was "furious" Laird decided to go sleep in his car. He told her to let him go back to sleep, but she refused, saying that she wanted to fight. They eventually agreed to not fight and to go back to the trailer together. They each drove a car back to the trailer; Laird arrived first and went to bed. Kathryn got to the trailer about twenty minutes later, and was "going all around" the trailer, slamming drawers. Laird told Kathryn to calm down and asked her what the problem was. She was very upset, would not say what was wrong, and kept slamming things around and digging through drawers. She was acting "like a mad woman"; Laird told her to settle down. Kathryn suddenly stormed out of the trailer, telling Laird to "take care of Ralphie." Laird fell asleep; he assumed Kathryn had cooled off and then come home.

         ¶12 The next morning, July 31, 1999, Kathryn did not show up for work at Quill Gordon's. Heidrich, Kathryn's co-worker, called the Lairds' trailer looking for Kathryn. The phone rang, but no one answered it. Heidrich waited a few minutes and called a second time. Laird groggily answered. Heidrich asked if something was wrong with Kathryn, Laird replied, "No, she's at work," and Heidrich responded that she was not. Heidrich called his girlfriend, asked for her help setting out breakfast, and briefly left work to go pick her up. As he drove back to work around 6:30 or 7:00 a.m. he saw Laird driving away from the afterbay towards his trailer.

         ¶13 Warren was in bed sleeping that morning, when a knock at the door awakened her. By the time she got out of bed, Laird was already standing in the kitchen. Laird asked Warren if Kathryn was there, and Warren responded that she was not. Laird angrily reported that Kathryn's morning job had called and said she did not show up, so he was looking for her. Laird left immediately after speaking with Warren, and Warren began to prepare breakfast for the fishing guests. Warren became worried, however, and called Laird to see if he had found Kathryn. He had not, but said he had gone down to the afterbay and that Kathryn's car was parked there.

         ¶14 Warren finished serving breakfast and called Laird for an update. He reported that Kathryn was still missing. Warren decided to go look for Kathryn and drove to the Lairds' trailer, where she found Laird sitting in the rocking chair on the porch. Laird reported that when Kathryn got home the night before, she took a shower and then initiated an argument with him. Laird told Warren a similar version of events that he later told the Board: that he did not want to argue with Kathryn and, therefore, went to the afterbay to sleep in his car. Kathryn followed him to the afterbay; the two eventually went home, where the argument continued. Laird reported that Kathryn eventually said, "I'm going to kill myself, take care of Ralphie," and left.

         ¶15 Warren got in Laird's car, and the two began to search for Kathryn. Laird drove to Kathryn's car in the afterbay parking lot. Warren got out of Laird's car, approached Kathryn's car, opened the door, and noticed Kathryn's purse and keys were in the car. After looking in Kathryn's car, Warren went back to Laird's car and asked him if he was going to get out and help her look for Kathryn. Laird got out of his car and walked around, slowly dragging his feet and not putting much effort into any type of search. They decided to go look elsewhere, and when Warren asked Laird if they should lock Kathryn's car to protect Kathryn's purse, Laird replied that they should not, because then Kathryn would not be able to access the vehicle. Laird did, however, take his fishing rods out of Kathryn's car.

         ¶16 The two left the parking lot and Laird drove them around while they looked for Kathryn. They got out of the car again at a different parking area, where Warren loudly yelled Kathryn's name, while Laird shuffled around and repeated Kathryn's name quietly. They eventually went back to Laird's trailer, where Laird called 911 at Warren's insistence. Warren later described Laird as angry and worried. Warren also noticed that all of the photographs had been turned down at the trailer. After Laird called 911, Warren left the trailer and proceeded to ask various people if they had seen Kathryn-no one had.

         ¶17 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.

         ¶18 Laird jumped into his car and raced off. Warren followed in her own car, as did Officer Morrison and Ranger Bredow. Laird arrived at the overflow parking lot first and pulled Kathryn's body partially out of the water onto her back. That area of the afterbay was shallow and the shoreline was rocky. Laird was wailing and crying over Kathryn's body-officers had to physically remove him from Kathryn's body. Kathryn was wearing gray sweatpants, which were at the bikini line in front and exposing half of her buttocks in back. She was wearing a bra and a button-up shirt, with only one or two buttons buttoned at the top. She also had on earrings, a ring, and a wristwatch. Kathryn was not wearing shoes, socks, contact lenses, or glasses.

         ¶ 19 FBI Agent Jackson arrived at the scene and noticed there were a number of different law enforcement officers representing a variety of different agencies. The officers had an impromptu meeting to discuss the situation; Agent Jackson took an informal investigatory lead. Laird willingly spoke with Agent Jackson about the events that had transpired the night before. Laird told Agent Jackson the same story he told Warren and later told the Board: he and Kathryn argued when she got home from work around 11:3O; he left to sleep in his car in the afterbay parking lot; he awoke when Kathryn showed up wanting to continue the argument; she drove away; he left as well, going home where he arrived before Kathryn; he laid down; Kathryn arrived about fifteen minutes later and made a lot of noise, wanting to argue more; Kathryn eventually left, slamming the door behind her.

         ¶20 Laird and Warren eventually left the overflow parking area in their own vehicles. Warren picked up one of her friends and they went to the Lairds' trailer to check on Laird. Laird was agitated and commented to Warren, "I'm bad. I'm bad. I never should have left her." Warren stayed with Laird until his friend, Russell Renner (Renner), arrived. Awhile later, Warren and her husband drove Laird to the hospital in Hardin to help Laird calm down. They dropped Laird off at the hospital, went to the store, and returned to pick Laird up. Laird reported that there was not a doctor available to see him and that he did not want to wait for one. On the way back to Fort Smith, Laird asked to stop the car so he could use the restroom. When he got back into the car, he asked Warren and her husband, "So, what do you guys think?" Warren described Laird's demeanor as inquiring, matter-of-fact- he did not appear upset. They dropped Laird off at his trailer when they got back to Fort Smith.

         ¶21 That afternoon, Laird called Kathryn's mother, Mary Lou, and informed her that Kathryn died. Mary Lou and Kathryn's sister, Sheri, immediately booked airline tickets to Montana. They arrived in Billings at 2:00 a.m. on August 1, 1999 and went to Fort Smith in the morning. Laird's family also made their way to Fort Smith. 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.

         ¶22 The county coroner, Terry Bullis (Bullis), also responded to the overflow parking lot shortly after Kathryn's body was found. Bullis transported Kathryn's body to the mortuary in Hardin and contacted Dr. Mueller, a forensic pathologist, to arrange an autopsy. Before Dr. Mueller performed an autopsy, Bullis drew Kathryn's blood for toxicology testing and embalmed her body. Bullis testified that embalming may cause bruises to become darker-more prominent-but will not cause them to appear larger. Bullis noticed bruises on Kathryn's hands, right thigh, arms, the top of her feet.

         ¶23 On August 1, 1999, Dr. Mueller performed an autopsy on Kathryn's embalmed body. Bullis and Agent Jackson both attended the autopsy. Agent Jackson documented each photograph taken during the autopsy. Dr. Mueller observed braises around Kathryn's neck he contemporaneously described as "troubling." Dr. Mueller asked Dr. Bennett, another forensic pathologist, to join him for a second autopsy later that day. Agent Jackson attended the second autopsy as well. Dr. Bennett also observed the bruises on Kathryn's neck. In his portion of the autopsy report, Dr. Bennett noted, "Internally, the neck bruises overlaid prominent dark red-violet fresh bruising into both sternocleidal mastoid muscles, which in my opinion was clearly real and premortem." Dr. Bennett further noted the bruising "appeared to be fresh," but decided to excise the bruised tissue for microscopic examination. Bullis filled out Kathryn's death certificate, on which he indicated that Kathryn's "immediate cause" of death was "asphyxia by drowning" and that her "manner of death" "could not be determined."

         ¶24 Agent Jackson continued to investigate the circumstances surrounding Kathryn's death, seeking information from any potential witnesses. Agent Jackson did not, however, speak with the Andersons (the Lairds' neighbors who heard the couple fighting on the night of July 30, 1999). On August 2, 1999, Agent Jackson and Assistant Chief Ranger Ryan executed a search warrant on Laird's trailer. Ranger Ryan recalled seeing a pair of wet-looking jeans in the hallway. Agent Jackson seized a pair of jeans that were hanging on the side of the bathtub.

         ¶25 On August 6, 1999, Agent Jackson received a note from Ranger Ryan. The note read, in part, "Josh Anderson, who works at [the marina], stated that his parents ([Eric and Kathleen Anderson]) heard an argument going on at Trailer #9 the night of July 30th. [The Andersons] live right across the alley on B Street in the Trailer Court." The note provided the Andersons' Fort Smith and out-of-town phone numbers. Agent Jackson enclosed the note in an envelope, and the envelope remained with the case file. Kathleen Anderson later testified she spoke about the Lairds' late-night July 30, 1999 argument with a male ranger during the day on July 31, 1999, but thereafter did not speak about Kathryn's death with any law enforcement officers until the summer of 2012. Eric Anderson testified he did not speak with any law enforcement officers about Kathryn's death until the summer of 2012. In 2004, Agent Jackson received a promotion and transferred to FBI headquarters. The case remained open.

         ¶26 In 2012, another FBI agent reviewed the case file and noticed Ranger Ryan's August 6, 1999 note about the Lairds' late-night argument the Andersons overheard. The agent interviewed the Andersons in the summer of 2012, and the case subsequently gained traction-the authorities had renewed reason to suspect Laird killed Kathryn.

         ¶27 In September 2012, the FBI contacted Mark Majerus (Majerus), a biologist who specialized in identifying grasses. Majerus examined the sweatpants Kathryn was wearing when her body was found in the afterbay. At trial, Majerus testified he found two species of grass on Kathryn's sweatpants: (1) needle and thread, and (2) cheatgrass. Majerus found some grass on the inside of the pants near the waistband. He explained that the tallest of the grasses grew to about 36 inches under ideal growing conditions. Majerus also explained that the pieces of grass on Kathryn's sweatpants included parts of the plants that do not simply fall off-those parts would have only come off if some sort of force was applied to the plants. In 2012, Majerus visited the overflow parking lot area of the afterbay where Kathryn's body was found. He observed needle and thread and cheatgrass on the slope between the parking lot and the water. Majerus opined that the vegetation in the area was likely very similar in 2012 to how it was in 1999.

         ¶28 After reviewing all of the case information and gathering the Andersons' statements and Majerus's grass studies, 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.

         ¶29 The State presented the testimony of seventeen witnesses during its case-in-chief: Mary Lou, Kathryn's mother; Sheri, Kathryn's sister; Thomas, Kathryn's brother; Lyman, who witnessed the argument between Laird and Kathryn in the afternoon of July 30; Heidrich, Kathryn's co-worker who called Laird when Kathryn did not come to work on the morning of July 31; Warren, Kathryn's boss who witnessed an argument between Laird and Kathryn at work the night of July 30, searched for Kathryn with Laird on the morning of July 31, and found Kathryn's body; Eric and Kathleen Anderson, who heard the Lairds arguing on the night of July 30 and watched a large figure drive away in a white SUV; Officer Morrison, who first responded to Laird's 911 call and met Laird at the trailer; Ranger Ryan, responding and investigating ranger; Agent Jackson, FBI responder and lead investigator; Bullis, coroner; Majerus, botanist; and four other individuals who were familiar with Kathryn, the afterbay area, and/or the investigation.

         ¶30 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.

         ¶31 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.

         ¶32 When the Board questioned Laird about the circumstances regarding Kathryn's death, the Board and Laird discussed Dr. Mueller's autopsy findings. The District Court, accordingly, excluded portions of the conversation discussing Dr. Mueller's findings from the transcript it allowed the State to read at trial. The State, however, inadvertently read a portion of Dr. Mueller's findings to the jury: The forensic pathologist's "opinion was Kathryn Laird died of asphyxia by drowning, she sustained a bruise to the left thumb at least several hours before her death, multiple scattered bruises to back and extremities around the time of death and recent unusual bruises of muscle of neck." Laird objected. The District Court instantaneously provided a curative jury instruction: "[W]e've not had the testimony from any pathologist at this point and so that opinion is not properly before you and you are not to consider it...." The State replied, "I didn't see the line, Your Honor. Forgive me."

         ¶33 The State also sought to admit some photographs of the state of Kathryn's body at the autopsy through Agent Jackson. Agent Jackson testified the photographs accurately depicted the physical condition of Kathryn's body during the first autopsy. Laird objected to the photographs' admission, arguing the State did not have adequate foundation to admit the photographs because it was not presenting testimony from a medical examiner and that, even if proper foundation existed, the photographs were more prejudicial than probative, especially because Bullis embalmed Kathryn's body before the autopsy and photographs. The District Court overruled Laird's objection, allowing the State to admit the photographs through Agent Jackson.

         ¶34 At the close of the State's case-in-chief, Laird again moved for dismissal based on preaccusation delay, arguing he was most prejudiced by Dr. Mueller's death. Laird argued that, because Dr. Mueller had passed away during the delay, he did not now have the opportunity to cross examine Dr. Mueller regarding his "troubling" statements. The District Court again reserved its ruling on the preaccusation delay issue, noting it could not determine how prejudicial Dr. Mueller's death was until the trial concluded. Laird also moved for dismissal based on insufficient evidence, arguing the State failed to prove that a criminal act caused Kathryn's death. The District Court denied the motion, concluding the State presented evidence upon which a rational trier of fact could find Laird purposely or knowingly caused Kathryn's death.

         ¶35 Laird questioned two witnesses during his case-in-defense: Agent Jackson and Dr. Bennett. Agent Jackson's testimony was minimal; he laid the foundation for some photographic evidence, including photographs of a note Laird wrote to Kathryn on the back of an envelope postmarked July 15, 1999, which stated, in part, "I am sorry we have been fighting. I know you work hard [and] are helping a lot. I really appreciate all you do for me. I hope you have a great day."

         ¶36 At the start of his testimony, Dr. Bennett explained the complex phenomenon of freshwater drowning. He observed that Kathryn's body had bruising, but concluded most of the bruises occurred postmortem. He came to that conclusion after microscopically examining tissue samples excised from the bruised areas. He explained how, if tissue is injured prior to death, it will show microscopic evidence of vitality-that is, evidence of an inflammatory response. The only bruise that showed signs of vitality was the bruise on Kathryn's thumb. When asked about the internal bruising observed in Kathryn's neck area-the same bruising Dr. Mueller described as "troubling" and Dr. Bennett noted on his report as "real and premortem"-Dr. Bennett explained that type of bruise-looking injury can occur from the drowning or autopsy processes. In Dr. Bennett's opinion at trial, Kathryn's neck injury occurred postmortem. He testified that, while the bruising may have initially suggested strangulation or some other premortem-incapacitating injury, those conclusions were not ultimately supported by the microscopic analysis.

         ¶37 On cross-examination, the State sought to impeach Dr. Bennett's credibility. It began by asking, in front of the jury, whether he was once a pathologist in Iowa. Laird objected, the State responded, "His credibility is clearly at issue here about his diagnosis of causation of death." The District Court excused the jury and heard arguments from the parties regarding the State's attack on Dr. Bennett's credibility. The State asserted it could impeach Dr. Bennett's credibility because he asserted an expert opinion regarding Kathryn's cause of death. The State further stated that, in 1997, Dr. Bennett resigned as a medical examiner in Iowa because of misdiagnosis; in a 2012 interview with detectives, Dr. Bennett opined Kathryn was strangled and throttled; and in 2015, the State told Dr. Bennett he could no longer perform autopsies in Montana. The State attributed Dr. Bennett's change in opinion between 2012 and the trial to the fact that the State terminated its contract with him.

         ¶38 The District Court decided the State could perform a limited challenge to Dr. Bennett's credibility. Back in front of the jury, the State asked Dr. Bennett whether the State terminated his services. Dr. Bennett stated he was never the State's employee and, therefore, he could not have been terminated. The State rephrased its question: "Between 2012 and today's date, . . . were you either terminated, not rehired, or unappointed as an assistant state medical examiner?" Dr. Bennett responded, "I don't even know unappointed, what it was." The State pushed, "It's a yes or no." Dr. Bennett replied, "I was never appointed, so I guess if I was never appointed-even your office testifies I was never appointed prior to-." The State cut him off, "Nothing further, Your Honor."

         ¶39 After the defense rested, the parties presented their closing statements to the jury. In its closing statement, the State discussed Dr. Mueller's "troubling" statements. The State reminded the jury that, through Agent Jackson, it learned that: Dr. Mueller initially indicated that Kathryn Laird's death in the afterbay appeared nothing other than a simple drowning. That's how it began. That is until he got to the internal exam of Kathryn Laird's neck, inside. When doing this, Dr. Mueller pointed out the extensive hemorrhaging in her neck, in and around the sternocleidal mastoid muscles and longus colli muscles. He then expressed a wholly new reaction to what he had been seeing. It was troubling. An impression he repeated numerous times. That reaction changed the entire course of the investigation. From that point, Brian Laird was the one and only suspect.

         ¶40 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. Laird now appeals his conviction, arguing three distinct issues, which we address in turn.

         STANDARDS OF REVIEW

         ¶41 A preaccusation delay issue presents a question of constitutional law, which we review de novo. State v. Passmore, 2010 MT 34, ¶ 23, 355 Mont. 187, 225 P.3d 1229.

         ¶42 We also review a district court's denial of a motion to dismiss for insufficient evidence de novo. State v. McAlister, 2016 MT 14, ¶ 6, 382 Mont. 129, 365 P.3d 1062.

         ¶43 We review a district court's evidentiary rulings for an abuse of discretion. State v. Colbum,2018 MT 141, ...


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