Bromgard settles with state for $3.5M

By CLAIR JOHNSON - Billings Gazette - 01/12/07

BILLINGS — Former Billings resident Jimmy Bromgard, who spent more than 15 years in prison for a child rape he did not commit, on Friday settled his lawsuit against the state of Montana for $3.5 million.

The settlement is the largest amount the state has ever paid for a civil rights violation, said Bromgard’s attorney, Ron Waterman of Helena.

“Indeed, it is the most the state has ever paid to any individual for its misconduct except in cases in which the victim of the state’s misconduct died,” Waterman said.

“This has been a long journey for Jimmy that started in 1987 with a wrongful conviction,” Waterman said. “There’s no amount money that will compensate him for 15.5 years in prison. This will start to heal the wounds.”

Bromgard, 39, now of Kalispell, sought $16.5 million when he sued in 2004, naming the state; Mike Greely, former attorney general; Arnold Melnikoff, former state crime lab director; Yellowstone County, and Commissioners Jim Reno, Bill Kennedy and John Ostlund, alleging violations of his constitutional rights.

While Bromgard and the state have settled, Bromgard’s case against the county continues in federal court.

Bromgard was 19 in 1987 when a jury convicted him of raping an 8-year-old girl while she was home in her bed in Billings. A judge sentenced him to 40 years in prison. But in 2002, Bromgard was exonerated and released after DNA testing found he did not commit the crime.

The DNA testing was conducted by the Innocence Project, a New York-advocacy group that works to exonerate wrongfully convicted criminal defendants.

Bromgard alleged that the state and Melnikoff were negligent. Melnikoff’s testimony at trial on hair comparisons helped convict Bromgard, but his work was later discredited by national forensic experts.

Peter Neufeld, an attorney with the Innocence Project who also represents Bromgard, said the settlement was achieved “in response to the disgraceful role” Melnikoff played in providing “false testimony” to convict an innocent man.

Melnikoff worked for the Department of Justice for about 19 years before leaving Montana in 1989 to work at the Washington State Patrol crime lab. He was fired in 2004, based in part on his work in Montana.

Bromgard’s attorneys said the Washington State Court of Appeals last week upheld the Washington State Patrol’s decision to fire Melnikoff because of false and misleading testimony he had given in Montana.

In Montana, the attorney general has failed to conduct a comprehensive audit of Melnikoff’s casework, they said. The first three cases examined, however, resulted in exonerations.

In a statement through his attorneys, Bromgard said that while he was relieved to be paid some measure of compensation, he was concerned about other men sitting in prison as a result of Melnikoff’s incompetence and misconduct.

“I urge the attorney general to appoint an independent examiner to conduct DNA testing on the hairs in every criminal case in which Melnikoff declared a match,” Bromgard said. “DNA and the truth set me free. The state of Montana should not be allowed to ignore its duty to seek the truth in all of these other criminal cases.”

Missoula attorney Mike Williams, who represented the state, said he could not comment on the settlement.

Lynn Solomon, with the state Justice Department, said Attorney General Mike McGrath would not comment because the case with the county is still pending.

Deputy County Attorney Kevin Gillen also declined comment.

Bromgard’s claim against the county is moving forward. He alleges that the county violated his right to effective legal counsel and failed to properly hire and supervise attorneys hired to represent indigent defendants. A conference is scheduled next week with U.S. Magistrate Judge Carolyn Ostby to review the status of the case. Most of the motions have already been made and the case could proceed to setting a trial date, Waterman said.

The state settlement is the result of a mediation session held among all the parties in early December. U.S. Magistrate Judge Keith Strong of Great Falls conducted the talks. Bromgard declined an undisclosed final offer from the county. Ongoing talks between the state and Bromgard led to Friday’s settlement, Waterman said.

The parties notified the court Friday of the settlement, which was approved later in the afternoon by U.S. District Judge Richard Cebull. Each party is to pay its own legal costs. As of last September, the state has spent $1.1 million from its self-insurance program on its defense. A state official said earlier that a settlement would come from that program.

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Reader Comments:

purple wrote on Jan 12, 2008 11:03 AM:

" Better yet, make the settlement $ 3.5 BILLION, then sentence the prosecutor to serve a life sentence. "