HELENA, Mont. (AP) — A split Montana Supreme Court reversed a man's conviction for the July 1999 drowning of his wife in southeastern Montana.
Former Fort Collins, Colorado, attorney and fly-fishing guide Brian David Laird, 51, appealed his 2016 conviction for deliberate homicide in the death of Kathryn Laird, for which he is serving a 100-year sentence in the Montana State Prison.
In an opinion issued Tuesday, four of the seven justices agreed the trial judge wrongly allowed the state to rely heavily on a remark by a now-deceased medical examiner who said marks on the victim's neck were troubling.
The judge allowed an FBI agent to testify that the medical examiner's statement that he found the bruises on Kathryn Laird's neck "troubling" led to a second autopsy. However, justices said the state overstepped by saying the "troubling" neck bruising changed the course of the investigation and that led them to believe Laird was the only suspect.
The medical examiner died before the trial, so Laird's attorneys were unable to cross-examine him, causing error that prejudiced Laird's case, the justices wrote.
Two of those four justices agreed with Laird that the trial judge should have dismissed the case because the state did not present expert testimony that Kathryn Laird's death was a result of homicide.
Three justices said they would have upheld the conviction, arguing the medical examiner's statement was admissible and a second autopsy found bruising in the muscles of Kathryn Laird's neck.
The case was referred back to District Court in Big Horn County. Laird's attorney, Nancy Schwartz of Billings, did not immediately return a phone call seeking comment.
Prosecutors said Brian Laird killed his wife of five months after a series of arguments on July 30, 1999. She had recently told friends and family she was going to leave her husband.
Her body was found the next day in a bay along Montana's Bighorn River near Fort Smith.
An autopsy found the 28-yearold woman drowned, but the manner of death remained undetermined. The criminal investigation was revived in 2012 when an FBI agent reviewing the file came across the names of two neighbors who had not been previously interviewed. The neighbors testified they overheard a loud argument at the Lairds' trailer that ended suddenly the last night Kathryn Laird was seen alive.
Witnesses said Laird didn't seem too concerned about looking for his wife when she didn't show up for work and that one of her employers had to insist that Laird call 911.
Other evidence indicated Kathryn Laird had been dragged to the water's edge, court records said.