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Exonerated Montana Prisoner Sues State, Receives $3.5 Million

In January 2008, the state of Montana settled a lawsuit filed by a former prisoner who had been wrongfully convicted of raping a child, paying him $3.5 million. The settlement was the largest amount the state had ever paid for a civil rights violation.

When he was 19, Jimmy Ray Bromgard was convicted in 1987 of raping an 8-year-old girl while she was at home in her bed. After a trial that connected him to the crime through hair analysis, Bromgard was found guilty and sentenced to 40 years in prison. In 2002, the New York Innocence Project conducted DNA testing in his case.

That test found the forensic evidence did not match Bromgard’s DNA; he was exonerated and released after serving over 15 years. The $3.5 million settlement in his subsequent lawsuit was achieved in large part due to “false testimony” provided by former state crime lab director Arnold Melnikoff.

Melkinoff had worked for Montana’s Department of Justice for 19 years before moving to the Washington State Patrol crime lab. The State Patrol fired him in March 2004 based upon his conduct in Bromgard’s case and an internal audit of the crime lab, which found problems with 30 of 100 drug analysis cases that Melnikoff had handled from 1999 to 2002.

Despite these significant problems, the Attorney General’s office has failed to conduct a comprehensive audit of all the cases handled by the former crime lab director.

“I urge the Attorney General to appoint an independent examiner to conduct DNA testing on the hairs in every criminal case in which Melkinoff declared a match,” said Bromgard.
“DNA and the truth set me free. The state of Montana should not be allowed to ignore its duty to seek the truth in all these other criminal cases.”

Bromgard, 39, is now trying to put his life back together. “This has been a long journey for Jimmy that started in 1987 with a wrongful conviction,” said his attorney, Ron Waterman. “There’s no amount of money that will compensate him for 15 ½ years in prison. This will start to heal the wounds.”

Bromgard had initially decided not to sue the state for his wrongful imprisonment; instead, he opted to make use of a state program that offered free education for prisoners who had been exonerated. However, after enrolling in school Bromgard was forced to take out student loans because the state had never appropriated money to fund the program.

Following his release Bromgard also had worked with the public defender system. The county told him he would be paid for his participation, but he never was. “I’m not a greedy person,” said Bromgard, but he noted the state had “screwed me again and again and again.”

Although Bromgard’s lawsuit was settled against Montana state officials, it continues against Yellowstone County defendants. Those claims allege the county violated his right to effective legal counsel and failed to properly hire and supervise attorneys who represent indigent defendants. A trial has been scheduled for March 2009. See: Bromgard v. State of Montana, U.S.D.C., D. Mt., Case No. CV-05-32-BLG-RFC-CSO.

Additional sources: Billings Gazette, Associated Press

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Related legal case

Bromgard v. State of Montana