A Montana Supreme Court decision has cleared the way for Gallatin County prosecutors to proceed with a murder case against a Glendive woman charged with killing her infant daughter in 2008.
Shanara Rose Anderson, 25, was charged in February 2009 with deliberate homicide after a year-long investigation into the death of her 3-month-old daughter, Vanyel.
According to court documents, on Jan. 10, 2008, Anderson called Gallatin County 911, saying her baby was not breathing.
A state medical examiner who performed an autopsy on Vanyel found bruising on her brain, suggesting "a delayed death following a lethal event," court documents state. He also discovered several rib fractures "indicative of non-accidental trauma, most likely due to compression of the chest or ... direct blows to the trunk."
However, last March Gallatin District Judge Mike Salvagni ruled that none of that evidence - save for a single rib fracture that occurred shortly before the baby's death - was admissible in court, since the medical examiner could not determine the infant's cause of death.
Salvagni's ruling, plus another that excluded a statement Anderson made to a Bozeman police detective, prompted Gallatin County Attorney Marty Lambert in April to file to dismiss charges. Lambert said at the time he had essentially no evidence left to try the case.
Salvagni denied that motion.
The Supreme Court's unanimous decision filed Tuesday overturns not only Salvagni's ruling on the evidence suppression, but also the 1979 case that set the precedent on which the district judge partly based his decision.
The high court's opinion, which has broad implications for future criminal cases tried throughout the state, eases requirements for prosecutors when they are preparing evidence for a case.
Previous rules did not allow prosecutors to discuss past crimes or behaviors that were not similar to the crime being tried, nor could they discuss events that happened a long time ago.
Justice James C. Nelson, writing for all the justices, overturned that rule.
He wrote that Salvagni was not wrong in his interpretation of the rule, but that the case law was flawed.
"The problem is with the precedent itself," he wrote. "Recent cases have demonstrated that (those) rules ... are not effectively serving the purposes for which they were adopted. To the contrary, these rules have given rise to needlessly technical notice requirements, created uncertainty and inconsistency in the analysis of alleged character evidence and led to the wrongful exclusion of evidence in some cases.
"In short, similarity and nearness in time are no longer prerequisites for the admission of other crimes, wrongs or acts evidence," Nelson wrote.
Evidence to be admitted or re-examined
In terms of the evidence in Anderson's case, the justices ruled that the evidence should be admitted or re-examined at the request of defense attorneys.
"The exclusion of this evidence, in conjunction with the suppression of Anderson's statements ... has left the state with essentially no evidence with which to prosecute the charge," Nelson wrote. "Under these circumstances, we conclude that the aforementioned mistake of law is causing a gross injustice."
The justices did not rule on the suppression of Anderson's Jan. 11, 2008, statement to Bozeman detective Andy Knight. Salvagni concluded that, although Knight was polite and non-threatening during the interview, he "employed impermissible procedures to obtain involuntary statements from Anderson" by downplaying her Miranda rights and repeatedly inferring that physical evidence from the autopsy was contrary to her statements, despite the autopsy's inconclusive findings.
Lambert said Wednesday he was "extremely pleased" with the Supreme Court decision.
"The prior rules created procedural barriers for the prosecution that were unfair and that were unworkable for the district courts and are no longer going to be the law," he said. "Thirty-one years of precedent has been overturned and now the state has the opportunity to proceed with charges and with our attempt to hold Ms. Anderson accountable."
Calls to Anderson's defense attorneys were not returned Wednesday.
Jodi Hausen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 582-2630. Read her blog at jhausen.wordpress.com or follow her on Twitter @bozemancrime.