State v. Morse

State v. Morse, 2015 MT 51 (Feb. 23, 2015) (McKinnon, J.) (4-1, rev’d, Rice, J., dissenting)

Issue: (1) Whether the district court erred in denying Morse’s untimely motion for new trial and directing Morse to pursue postconviction relief; and (2) whether the district court abused its discretion in allowing the state to elicit testimony fro the victim’s sisters about Morse’s past conduct.

Short Answer: (1) Yes. The Court reverses in this issue and does not reach (2).

Reversed and remanded

Facts: HS is the adult daughter of Morse’s girlfriend. She is married, with three children, and suffers from spinal neuropathy and has chronic back pain. She is prescribed a muscle relaxer for pain relief. HS had known Morse for several years, and believed he know certain chiropractic techniques to help her back pain.

In September 2012, HS had severe back pain. Her mother took the children and HS took a muscle relaxer and Morse came to her house to give her a massage that lasted five hours. She testified that he sexually penetrated her with his fingers. The state introduced evidence of her underwear, which was very wet, implying it was vaginal fluid.

The state charged Morse with sexual intercourse without consent, and the jury convicted him on March 20, 2013. On April 19, 2013, Morse moved for a new trial, arguing there was insufficient evidence to convict and that he was unfairly prejudiced by admission of alleged prior bad acts. The district court denied the motion May 20, 2013.

On May 31, 2013, Detective Walund received a report that HS claimed her husband had sexually assaulted her. Walund interviewed her, and she said perhaps the wetness on her underwear was urine.

Procedural Posture & Holding: On Sept. 4, 2013, Morse filed a second, untimely motion for new trial based on HS’s statements. The district court held a hearing on Oct. 21, 2013 where it heard testimony from Walund and HS, and denied Morse’s motion on Oct. 25. The court noted that HS’s post-trial statements contradict some of her trial testimony, but concluded the motion was time barred by § 46-16-702, MCA, and no exception applies. The district court sentenced Morse in December 2013 to 15 years in prison with 10 suspended, stayed the judgment and released Morse pending appeal. Morse appealed, and the Supreme Court reverses.

Reasoning: § 46-16-702(2), MCA, requires motions for new trials to be filed within 30 days of the verdict. Morse argues he will be denied due process if he is required to serve a sentence when the victim has recanted material parts of her testimony, and contends the plain language of subsection (1) allows the court to grant a new trial “if required in the interest of justice,” “without a motion or after motion and hearing.” MCA § 46-16-702(1). The time and notice requirements in subsection (2) do not apply to a district court acting sua sponte. The statute makes clear that a court has authority to grant a new trial, and is guided only by the interest of justice in doing so. “Under the circumstances of this case, we cannot require a defendant to forego an appeal in order to first pursue relief through a postconviction proceeding, while serving a sentence of incarceration, when the court could provide an immediate remedy of granting a new trial.” ¶ 35.

Justice Rice’s Dissent: Justice Rice concurs in the judgment but dissents from the Court’s approach in reaching that result. Justice Rice would conclude that Morse faced an unavoidable forfeiture of remedies, reach the merits of his motion despite its untimeliness and grant him a new trial. He dissents from the majority’s conclusion that the legislature did not intend for the 30-day time limit to apply.