- Associated Press - Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Billings Gazette, July 14, on improving the coroner’s inquest system:

Montana takes pride in doing a number of things better than others.

In so many ways, that’s true.

And, Montana seems to have another way in which it can lead the nation. This is taking a very old idea, and giving it a much needed update.

In a three-part series about coroner’s inquests and juries in Montana, Gazette reporter Sam Wilson examined the role and function of the coroner’s jury. It’s a practice that dates back before statehood. Think of it like a type of open grand jury in which the jurors, selected by a coroner, hear the details of a death and decide whether there is enough evidence to recommend charges to the county attorney, who, by state statute, has the power to charge.

Wilson’s excellent reporting showed that sometimes these juries act more like a perfunctory obligation than a true inquest. In other words, coroners present a case, walk through some details, and jurors rarely return any charges. The Gazette’s reporting points out that coroners and sometimes a county attorney may be hesitant to really pursue the specifics of a case because those same county attorneys may be called upon to defend the actions of law enforcement officers in civil suits. And, it’s hard to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest when the county prosecutor and the law enforcement are on the same payroll.

That being said: We believe that Yellowstone County Attorney Scott Twito and his staff do an excellent job during the coroner’s inquest and jury. Nowhere else in the state calls upon these juries more than Yellowstone County.

These juries are not just called when a law enforcement officer kills a person; they happen when there’s a death at the jail or even sometimes in the case of another homicide or a car crash. The statute is broad and Twito uses it when there are questions he would like to send to a jury.

We also commend Twito for allowing the families of those who have been killed to participate and ask questions. We’ve seen this happen several times, and while it certainly can complicate matters, it shows his willingness to be open and transparent. Twito is under no obligation to let this happen.

But others should take his lead, and it’s a way the system can be improved.

We should also say that we believe the in the importance of coroner’s juries and inquests. We believe that public participation in the process, coupled with the information that is disclosed during these is absolutely vital. If we’re truly going to hold our public officials accountable, and know what they’re doing - things the Montana State Constitution guarantees - then it’s absolutely essential that we keep it.

However, we believe the system could also be improved with several significant tweaks to make the system work even better. We hope that lawmakers during the next legislative session take a proactive approach and improve what we already have, so that it becomes a model for other states.

We’re lucky to have a system that provides the transparency and information. And the lawmakers have also mandated that records be kept and maintained. That’s fantastic.

However, we’re worried that because coroners who conduct the inquests must not be from the same county, and that a lot of counties have merged the coroner with other elected positions, that the number of qualified people to lead these important efforts are dwindling.

Also, we’re concerned that using county attorneys as legal counsel for such proceedings, especially when they may have to defend the actions of the county employees, puts the office in a tough position of both having to disclose everything, and wanting to limit the legal exposure in such hearings. We believe county attorneys can be transparent, but it’s not a fair position.

Instead, we would hope the lawmakers would consider creating a special standing master that would work through a department like the attorney general’s office. This standing master would be specially assigned to coroner’s inquests and juries. That person would travel throughout the state to conduct these procedures, know what witnesses to call, provide an impartial hearing, and have a background to conduct these. They would ease the burden of the coroners, many of whom have no background on calling and selecting a jury or running a court procedure.

Granted, this idea would cost the state money - in staffing, coordination and travel. However, we believe that having someone truly autonomous, independent and not affiliated with the individual counties would provide a more efficient, thorough and avoid appearances of conflicts of interest.

We can’t think of a more important function in our society than investigating the death of a fellow citizen, whether that’s a death from a car accident or a law enforcement officer. If we’re serious about justice, we should always be looking to make it better.

We don’t believe the cost would be exorbitant. Instead, we believe it would improve it, and possibly make it even better.

Editorial: http://bit.ly/2JPqvVF


Daily Inter Lake, July 14, on chronic wasting disease in Montana:

What seemed inevitable finally happened last month when samples taken from white-tailed deer in northwest Montana came back positive for chronic wasting disease.

This potentially devastating disease was first detected in Montana in 2017. By 2018, wildlife officials had confirmed 26 new cases, mostly along the northern border from Liberty County east to the North Dakota border. Now, the disease has made its way west, taking root in the population of urban deer within Libby’s city limits. It’s the first time the disease has been found in wild ungulates west of the Continental Divide.

The term chronic wasting disease comes from the appearance of stricken animals, which according to Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, get very skinny and sickly before they die.

The contagious neurological disease that infects deer, elk and moose has no known cure. The disease is slow and always fatal. Large-scale population declines are possible for decades to come if the disease is allowed to spread, wildlife officials warn.

We can’t let this happen, which is why we support Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks’ plan to take swift and substantial action to eradicate the disease from Libby’s herd. Already an incident command team has been deployed to the area, per state protocol. After calculating the geographic reach of the disease, officials will begin culling the herd in an effort to sample hundreds of deer in and around the urban area.

The general public is encouraged to get involved, as well. People in the Libby area who see a deer that appears to be sick should call 406-291-6539. People should also plan to attend one of Fish, Wildlife and Parks’ public meetings, with the first scheduled for Friday, July 19 at noon in the Ponderosa Room at Libby City Hall. Other meetings are planned for Aug. 2 and 16.

Hunters also need to learn how to recognize infected animals and about what precautions to take when harvesting a deer suspected to have the disease. Details about potential hunting season changes and other regulations related to the disease are expected to be finalized soon.

Make no mistake, the long-term consequences of chronic wasting disease are serious. If left unmanaged, it could wreak havoc not only on Northwest Montana’s ungulate population, but our way of life.

Editorial: http://bit.ly/2XHJpHU


Bozeman Daily Chronicle, July 11, on friction between landowners and trail users:

Tensions are building between local landowners and the users of trails adjacent to the landowners’ property. And that does not serve anyone well. All involved should step up efforts to reduce the friction before it turns into something worse - like a lawsuit.

Landowners along the Painted Hills and Triple Tree trails recently wrote a letter to the Gallatin County Commission and the Gallatin Valley Land Trust complaining that trail users leave litter and use the trails after dark in violation of regulations. Homeowners complain of trail users peering into windows after dark. The property owners are asking the county and land trust to educate trail users about the regulations governing trail use through more signage and enforcement actions.

In an ideal world, those measures would be unnecessary. It’s a matter of common sense and courtesy that hikers would stay on trails and off private property, pick up litter after themselves and their pets and respect the privacy of landowners. But we don’t live in an ideal world.

GVLT and the county could probably do a little more to curb inappropriate behavior. Organization members spend time on the trails. Asking them to help keep trails clean and speak with hikers who are doing things they shouldn’t would help. An occasional visit to trailheads by a deputy sheriff might help, as well. And responsible hikers in general should take it upon themselves to keep trails clean and ask fellow trail users to act appropriately while hiking.

But landowners need to practice a little tolerance, as well. There are going to be inconvenient times when trail users are noisy. But remember that having that trail nearby likely increases property values.

The Bozeman area enjoys a marvelous network of trails. And much of that system is the product of easements granted by private landowners. If we are going to expand the trail system to meet population growth, more landowner cooperation will be needed in the future. But if difficulties between trail users and landowners continue, getting that cooperation is going to be difficult.

It’s in everyone’s interest to keep the landowner-trail user relationship amicable. And all trail users can do a little more to help this situation.

Editorial: https://bit.ly/2LpUmYi

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