A woman made her case to the Montana Board of Pardons and Parole on Thursday, seeking to end her sentence on a crime she maintains she didn’t do.
Katie Garding, convicted of vehicular homicide by a jury trial in 2013 in the hit-and-run death of Bronson Parsons, appeared Thursday for an executive clemency hearing, a step in the process that rarely moves past the application phase. Following the hearing, the board is expected to issue a recommendation to grant or deny the request to Gov. Greg Gianforte in mid-July.
Represented by the Montana Innocence Project, Garding argued evidence uncovered since her conviction shows she could not have committed the crime. Garding was released from prison in December and is on parole while living in Billings, where she is employed at a veterinary clinic. Commuting her sentence would mean ending her remaining time on parole and taking a symbolic step toward establishing her innocence.
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Caiti Carpenter, legal director at the Montana Innocence Project, presented information Thursday from crash reconstruction experts that shows, through “thousands” of computer generated scenarios, that Garding’s vehicle could not have struck and killed Parsons on New Year’s Day in 2008. Procedural hurdles and technicalities, Garding and Carpenter argued, have marred appeals to overturn the conviction.
“Since the day I went to prison I have been trying to prove to all of you I was not the person who committed this crime,” Garding told the board.
The Missoula County Attorney’s Office and Parsons’ family members stood staunchly against Garding’s bid for clemency during Thursday’s hearing. Paul Parsons, the victim’s father, said each hearing and appeal have reopened his family’s wounds.
“I feel these hearings like a twisting of a knife that exists in my heart and soul,” he said.
Among those who testified on Thursday was Jennifer Streano, Garding’s public defender at the time of the initial case and now a Missoula Municipal Court judge. Garding’s car did not exhibit damage consistent with Parsons’ injuries, Streano said, and that lack of evidence led prosecutors to lean on statements from her ex-boyfriend, who may have been offered a lighter sentence in a separate case in exchange for his testimony.
“I’m not here because I lost the trial,” Streano told the board. “Katie is innocent. She deserves her story to be heard. She deserves this conviction to be corrected.”
Missoula County prosecutor Brian Lowney and District Court Judge John Larson, who presided over Garding’s case, countered that these issues have been resolved in Garding’s failed appeals and post-conviction relief proceedings.
“Those reports, those expert opinions, have been exhaustively litigated in front of the district court … and the (state) Supreme Court, and those claims have been rejected,” Lowney told the board. “This is simply another forum for her to make the same pitch she made to the district court.”
Members of the Board of Pardons and Parole, too, questioned if their forum was the right place to make Garding’s case.
Carpenter told the board where the technicalities of the justice system failed her client, the Board of Pardons and Parole could allow her to prevail. The Montana Supreme Court has twice rejected Garding’s appeals, most recently because it did not consider the crash-scene reconstruction reports to be “new evidence,” but a re-examination of the same evidence prosecutors presented at her trial.
“I am deeply sorry to the Parsons, their family and friends that had their answer and had their peace,” Carpenter told the board. “I ask this board to grant Katie clemency based on the evidence that she did not kill Mr. Parsons.”