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Judge reprimands county attorney in court

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POLSON — District Judge C.B. McNeil reprimanded County Attorney Mitch Young for his handling of media inquiries into accused killer Clifford Oldhorn’s case but refused Oldhorn a reduction in bail last week. 

Oldhorn denied Wednesday in Lake County District Court that he violated conditions of his probation. Oldhorn, who was convicted in 2011 of deliberate homicide for his role in the July 2005 murder of 73-year-old former tribal leader Harold W. Mitchell Jr., denied allegations that he possessed ammunition, consumed alcohol, kicked the door of a police car after being arrested — an accusation that resulted in a misdemeanor public nuisance charge — and associated with criminals or people who abuse alcohol or drugs. All four violations allegedly occurred on Feb. 15, just two days after McNeil set Oldhorn free on his own recognizance pending a new trial in the Mitchell case. The 26-year-old Oldhorn was still required to abide by probation rules for three 2005 convictions of burglary, theft and deceptive practices.

“I admit it’s disappointing to have these (alleged violations) so soon after Clifford was released,” Oldhorn’s attorney Ron Piper said. 

Still, Piper requested that Oldhorn’s bail be lowered from $30,000 to $5,000, noting that the ammunition found in the house with Oldhorn belonged to a family member who did not thoroughly understand the conditions of Oldhorn’s probation. 

Young objected for the state, noting that Oldhorn called authorities on Feb. 15 to express fear that relatives of Mitchell were going to seek revenge on him. Law enforcement responded to the residence where Oldhorn was staying and conducted a probation search, turning up some ammunition, which is a violation of the conditions of Oldhorn’s probation. Officers gave Oldhorn a warning, Young said.

“Within two hours after that, he was found out drinking in Dixon,” Young said.

Oldhorn’s blood alcohol level was .13 percent, Young continued, and in the patrol car after his arrest, Oldhorn repeatedly kicked the car door and the back of the seat.

Piper responded with another reason bail should be lowered, saying Oldhorn has been unable to receive medical treatment for a painful gastrointestinal issue that’s been bothering him. If freed on bond, Oldhorn could seek treatment himself, Piper argued. 

After denying Oldhorn’s bail request, McNeil said he wanted to address the county attorney regarding ethics. When Oldhorn was freed Feb. 13, County Attorney Mitch Young apparently held a press conference, and two Missoula news stations, KPAX and KECI, reported that Young told them Oldhorn had confessed to Mitchell’s murder. 

“That statement is blatantly false, and the county attorney knows that,” McNeil said, directing a piercing stare and his index finger at Young. “This defendant never confessed in any case to any murder.”

In 2008, Oldhorn sent a letter from prison in Great Falls, where he was incarcerated on unrelated convictions, to then-Lake County Undersheriff Jay Doyle stating that he had been a witness to Mitchell’s murder. Oldhorn maintains that when he wrote to Doyle, and later named three others who were involved, he believed he would be granted immunity from prosecution. Instead, all four men were charged in connection with the murder, and in August 2011, Oldhorn became the only one convicted. He was sentenced to 100 years in Montana State Prison for deliberate homicide, while charges on the other three men — Nigel Ernst, Nathan Ross and Kyle Brown — were dismissed, since prosecution of each depended largely on Oldhorn’s statements, and he was no longer cooperating.

Oldhorn appealed his conviction to the Montana Supreme Court, which handed the case back to Lake County District Court in November 2012 to make findings on whether or not Oldhorn’s statements to police were voluntary. District Judge McNeil found in Oldhorn’s favor and ordered that his conviction be vacated and he receive a new trial; the state responded with an appeal to the Supreme Court, and the appeal is pending. 

Until the Supreme Court rules on the state’s appeal, a new trial can’t be set.

Meanwhile, Oldhorn remains in the Lake County Jail on a $30,000 bond. He’s due back in court at 9 a.m. March 27 for a probation hearing and possible sentencing for the alleged violations. 

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