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The truth about Tranel’s legal work

| October 12, 2022 12:00 AM

We are prosecutors, defense attorneys, police officers, and others who work in law enforcement. We have political beliefs that run the full spectrum. Despite our differences, we are united in our conviction that Ryan Zinke’s recent ad attacking Monica Tranel is deliberately dishonest, and distracts the public from important and real concerns in the criminal justice system.

First, Mr. Zinke’s ad contains one very specific lie – at no point in time did Ms. Tranel argue that a man who was in prison and was still dangerous should be released. Rather, Ms. Tranel argued that the trial attorney made grievous mistakes that prevented the man from presenting his full defense, and that as a result, a new trial was warranted. The underlying charges were not relevant to Ms. Tranel’s argument.

When someone in prison gets a new trial, a judge and jury consider evidence they had not considered the first time around. If the person is found guilty, they will remain in prison. But if a judge and jury determine that the person is not guilty of the crime for which they had been wrongfully convicted, then–and only then–would a judge release them from prison.

Second, our constitution affords us all fair process, which protects us all. We know that the criminal justice system is as fallible as the humans who serve it. It is imperative that dangerous criminals are convicted and punished in a process that will withstand challenges. But despite the best intentions of everyone involved, innocent people can be arrested, prosecuted, and convicted for crimes they never committed. According to the National Registry of Exonerations, from 1989 to 2020, over 2,500 people in the United States had been found to have been wrongfully convicted.

A process that allows review of prior convictions for error is necessary for our justice system to function and keeps us all safe. We do not want to lock up innocent people. And when an innocent person has been wrongfully imprisoned, it also means that the dangerous person who actually committed the crime is still free in society. According to the Innocence Project, of the 375 exonerations made from DNA evidence, the actual perpetrator later “was identified in 165 cases,” and those people had committed “154 additional violent crimes.” Stated another way, locking up the wrong person also allows the real criminal to harm others until they are caught.

If we did not have competent defense attorneys carefully reviewing all trials, wrongful convictions–and all of their harmful collateral consequences–would happen more often.

We condemn attacks on lawyers for providing a defense to others. Everyone signing this letter serves the community in different ways, and some of us stand in different corners in the courtroom, but we are in full agreement that our criminal justice system needs full commitment to the constitutional mandates of fairness and effective representation.

Fred VanValkenburg, Fmr. Missoula County Attorney; Kirsten Pabst, Missoula County Attorney; Ed McLean, Ret. District Judge; Rocky Hamilton, Ret. Manhattan Police Sergeant; Benjamin Davis, Youth Non-Profit Leader and Former Prosecutor; James C. Nelson, Ret. Montana Supreme Court Justice; Judith Dunn Heilman, Ret. Police Dept. Detective Sergeant; Stacy Lear, Ret. Missoula Police Dept. Major Crimes Detective; Colin Stephens, Defense Attorney; Benjamin Halverson, Billings DV Deputy City Attorney; Mike Wheat, Ret. Montana Supreme Court Justice.

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