After appeals to the North Dakota Supreme Court, at least five high-profile cases were sent back to district courts this year.
Four of these cases involved murder-related charges. All are awaiting a resentencing or a brand-new trial, and there may be more.
KX News sat down with a local criminal defense attorney, to find out if our district courts are falling behind, or if this is simply a part of the process.
Attorney Jackson Lofgren says many of these cases stand alone and had different issues that ultimately forced them back down to the district courts.
Lofgren shares, “The only real connection that they have is that in all three cases, the Supreme Court really looked at what was done below, and really applied the statutes and the constitutional provisions to make sure that the law was followed in all three cases.”
But, take the Bowman County murder case, where defendants Chase Swanson and Madison West were both found guilty of a 2016 murder. In July, the Supreme Court reversed that decision, and they will get the chance at a new trial. Lofgren says the issue here was the district court judge combined two totally different charges, making them both wrong.
He adds, “It’s something that they probably need to be paying more attention to.”
The attorney tells me this has happened a few times.
Lofgren explains, “There have been a number of cases in the last few years. A few years ago, there was a case where the Supreme Court said ‘conspiracy to commit reckless murder’ can’t be a crime. ‘Attempt to commit a reckless act’ can’t be a crime, so it goes sort of in line with those cases.”
He says back in 2013, several opinions made by the Supreme Court and even federal courts, tightened the rules around combining charges, and it’s part of the reason these cases are being overturned.
Lofgren adds, “It’s really changed how a lot of cases get charged out. Whereas before somebody might have said, ‘Well I think we can add these two crimes together’. Now prosecutors really have to look at it and say, ‘No these two crimes can’t be added. I’ve got to go with a different crime or just one.”
Ultimately, Lofgren tells me Supreme Court appeals are a part of the process. It simply means the higher court is doing its job.
He shares, “I think it just comes in waves, and the majority of cases do get affirmed, so maybe that makes it that much more unusual when we do get ones that do get reversed.”
Lofgren also mentioned that in the last ten years, several new district judges and Supreme Court Justices have taken the bench. But, he didn’t ultimately see this as a big factor in the recent reversals.