Supreme Court Rules For New Trial In Severson Case

The Montana Supreme Court has ruled that Kyle Lee Severson should be granted a new trial. Severson, Sidney, was convicted of mitigated deliberate homicide in the 2019 shooting of Tyler Hayden and sentenced to 40 years in prison.

The Montana Supreme Court ruled on Tuesday, April 9, that, "the cumulative effect of the errors of this case leaves us convinced that Severson is entitled to a new trial. Accordingly, we reverse Severson's conviction and remand to the District Court for further proceedings consistent with this opinion."

Severson's attorneys claimed that the State violated his rights to due process by failing to disclose favorable evidence as required under Brady v. Maryland and Montana law. The evidence included investigative reports of a burglary of Severson's home and the contents of Dalton Watson's cell phone.

According to court documents when Severson's girlfriend, Karina Orozco, returned home at the night of the shooting, she discovered their home had been burglarized. In the ensuing investigation, police identified Keaston Johns, Logan Krauser and Immanuel Brown as the primary suspects of the burglary. Johns was Hayden's girlfriend at the time of the shooting.

In late October 2019, Severson's defense sought to compel the disclosure of any information of law enforcement regarding the burglary. Finding he had failed to demonstrate a need for the report evidence, the District Court denied Severson's motion on Jan. 7, 2020.

About three weeks prior to his trial in September 2020, Severson again moved to compel disclosure of the evidence. The district court, reasoning that Severson could receive the investigative information as the victim of the burglary, ordered the reports to be disclosed. Upon reviewing the reports and learning of the potential connections between the burglary, Watson and Hayden, Severson moved the District Court to compel disclosure of the contents of Watson's cell phone, which was still in the State's possession. The defense noted that Watson and Hayden may have intercepted Severson at the Loaf 'N Jug as part of a conspiracy to burglarize Severson's home.

On the first day of the trial, the State reported that it had never attempted to unlock the phone or to view its contents. The court ordered Watson to appear the following day to unlock the phone for the court to examine. During that hearing, Watson testified that he could no longer remember the phone's passcode. Because of the time and effort needed for investigators to pursue entry of the phone, the court asked Severson if he wished to continue the trial until the phone could be unlocked. Concerned that Severson already had been in custody for 15 months, Severson's attoney rejected the court's offer of a continuance.

Unable to access the cell phone information, Severson's defense made two motions based on alleged violations of his rights to due process and a fair trial. First, it was moved to exclude Watson from testifying. Second, it was moved to dismiss the case. The District Court denied both motions because, due to the State's failure to access the information on the phone, Severson had not shown that any evidence on the phone was favorable to him.

Court documents read that five months after trial, law enforcement was able to access the contents of Watson's phone. On June 29, 2021, the District Court ordered that the contents of the phone be filed under seal and made available to the parties. A review of the phone revealed that, although the phone belonged to Watson, Hayden had used it in the days leading up to the shooting. Included in the data retrieved from the phone were Facebook messages between Hayden and a person named Shammar Brown, indicating that on the day before the shooting Hayden had pulled a gun on Brown during an argument.

The Montana Supreme Court notes that Brady evidence need not itself be admissible to trigger due process protections; it need have only the "potential to lead directly to admissible exculpatory evidence."

The court noted, "The favorability of the investigative reports should have been obvious to the State as early as Aug. 7, 2019. On that date, Watson admitted to receiving items stolen from Karina. The information contained in the reports connected the burglary directly to Watson and Hayden. Watson received proceeds from the burglary-from Hayden's girlfriend-on the night of the shooting. The information connecting the burglary to the shooting had the potential to lead directly to the discovery of other exculpatory evidence, namely the contents of Watson's cell phone."

The Supreme Court suggested that former Richland County Attorney Janet Christoffersen intentionally hid evidence that was likely to have made a difference at Severson's trial."The misconduct again contributes to the court's consideration of cumulative error," the ruling noted. "Given the string of missteps and errors in the case, namely the prosecutor's implicit suggestion to the jury through improper questioning that Severson and (his girlfriend) were drug dealers and the state's failure to disclose the burglary information - all going to the essential issue of witness credibility - we conclude this is 'the rare case in which the cumulative effect of the errors' has prejudiced the defendant's right to a fair trial."

On July 2, 2019, Severson, his girlfriend Karina Orozco, her sister Jessica Orozco, and Severson's and Karina's 3-year-old daughter drove to the Loaf 'N Jug convenience store in Sidney. Severson was sitting in the rear passenger seat of the vehicle. When Karina and Jessica entered the store; Severson and his daughter stayed in the car. Six minutes later, Hayden and Watson arrived at the store and parked next to Karina's vehicle. Both Watson and Hayden entered the store. After a few minutes, Watson returned to his vehicle. Karina and Jessica exited the store roughly 45 seconds later. Twenty seconds after that, Hayden exited and returned to the passenger side of Watson's vehicle. After briefly confirming with Watson that Severson was in the back seat of Karina's car, Hayden turned and approached Severson's open window. Words were exchanged from Hayden as he came close to the vehicle. As Hayden approached, Severson raised a .38 caliber handgun, shot Hayden at close range, and killed him.

It is a possibility that the new trial could take place in Richland County if a plea agreement isn't reached between the parties.


Reader Comments(0)