Court denies appeal by cat hoarders

The Montana Supreme Court has unanimously denied an appeal filed by a couple convicted of aggravated cruelty to animals.

Edwin and Cheryl Criswell were convicted in Flathead District Court in September 2011 after the couple, 116 cats and several other animals were saved from their snowbound trailers in December 2010.

The Criswells filed the appeal in August 2012, claiming prosecutors did not present sufficient evidence that the couple acted without justification and that Flathead County Deputy Attorney Ken Park prejudiced the jurors through his comments at the end of the trial.

The appeal referred specifically to Park calling the Criswells “professional freeloaders” during his closing statements.

“The prosecutor’s comments in this case went too far,” the appeal reads. “A prosecutor can lead the jury to the edge of a cliff, but he or she cannot push them over. Here the jury was already feeling pressure from the audience; the prosecutor’s inflammatory comments served only to bias the jury’s feelings heading into deliberations.”

In a unanimous ruling issued July 2, the state high court ruled that sufficient evidence was presented by prosecutors, and that while Park’s comments were improper, they did not prejudice the jury due to the extent of evidence and testimony provided in the case.

“Rather than being biased against the Criswells by Park’s remarks, it is more plausible that the jurors saw those remarks for what they were: unprofessional and unnecessary disparagements of the defendants having no bearing on the question of guilt,” Justice Laurie McKinnon wrote in the court’s opinion.

Despite concurring with that opinion, Chief Justice Mike McGrath wrote separately to emphasize what he called “the serious nature of what I believe to be the prosecutor’s misconduct.”

“In his explanation to the District Court, the prosecutor maintained that his remarks had not been intended to inflame the jury or to comment on the Criswells’ characters,” McGrath wrote. “Personally, I find that hard to believe. If not intended to inflame the jury or comment on the Criswells’ characters, then what were they intended to do?

“A prosecutor is an officer of the court. Prosecutors must strive to promote justice and the rule of law. By making these improper comments to the jury, the prosecutor undermined the respect for the criminal justice system. Although the prosecutor’s comments were not grounds for a mistrial in this case, it must be emphasized that this type of conduct is not to be tolerated.”

Edwin Criswell was given a two-year deferred sentence and Cheryl Criswell received a six-year deferred sentence. Edwin Criswell later violated his probation by testing positive for marijuana and methamphetamine, and he was sentenced this January to two years with the Montana Department of Corrections.

He is serving his sentence at the Missoula Assessment and Sanction Center, a facility that provides short-term treatment for chemical dependency as well as mental health counseling and other services.

Park was out of the office Friday and unavailable for comment.

Reporter Jesse Davis may be reached at 758-4441 or by email at jdavis@dailyinterlake.com.

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