- Associated Press - Friday, December 4, 2015

THOMPSON FALLS, Mont. (AP) - A Montana judge freed a man Friday to await a new trial after the man spent 18 years in prison for the shooting death of his best friend in northwestern Montana.

District Judge James Wheelis ordered Richard Raugust released on his own recognizance during a bail hearing in Thompson Falls, the Missoulian reported (http://bit.ly/1lfMojq).

The judge required Raugust to live in Missoula County, check in weekly with the sheriff’s department and stay out of bars while his new trial is pending, said Larry Mansch of the Montana Innocence Project, which represented Raugust in his appeal.

“After 18 years of incarceration for a crime he did not commit, he is looking forward to spending the holidays with loved ones,” Mansch said in an email. “We will continue to work to prove his innocence, and we are dedicated to gaining a complete exoneration.”

Last month, Wheelis overturned Raugust’s deliberate homicide conviction and ordered a new trial in the 1997 death of Joseph Tash, whose body was found inside a camp trailer near Trout Creek in northwestern Montana.

The judge ruled that evidence had been withheld during the original trial that could have led to a different outcome.

Raugust was serving a life sentence after a jury found him guilty in 1998.

Tash had been shot in the head while lying unconscious in bed after a night of drinking and smoking marijuana.

At trial, witness Rory Ross testified that he saw Raugust shoot Tash after an argument. Raugust has steadfastly denied killing his friend and said he was in Thompson Falls the night of the shooting.

The Montana Innocence Project appealed Raugust’s conviction in 2012, arguing that new evidence supported Raugust’s alibi.

Wheelis ruled that Raugust’s defense attorneys did not know that a sheriff’s deputy may have corroborated Raugust’s story that he had stayed in town.

The judge’s ruling also noted that Ross had confessed several times to killing Tash.

Sanders County Attorney Robert Zimmerman previously argued that Ross is an alcoholic and his statements are unreliable.

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Information from: Missoulian, http://www.missoulian.com

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