9th Circuit hears Ronan bear-shooting case

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The case of a Ronan farmer convicted of killing a threatened grizzly bear came before the federal 9th Circuit Court of Appeals on March 29.

Brian F. Charette was sentenced to six months in prison and a $5,000 fine after shooting a grizzly bear on his property in 2014. That decision was appealed, and three 9th Circuit judges heard oral arguments from both sides during a special sitting in Moscow, Idaho last week.

The judges first heard John Rhodes, a Federal Defenders of Montana attorney representing Charette. At the outset, he argued that “the executive branch has failed its burden of proof ... the government offered no evidence that Mr. Charette did not have a permit to shoot a grizzly bear.”

Judge Richard C. Tallman raised doubts about this defense, suggesting that in these circumstances the burden fell on Charette to prove that he’d had a permit.

Judge N. Randy Smith then pressed Rhodes on why the government’s failure to prove lack of a permit hadn’t been a “harmless error.” If it were, the judge said, “then I don’t have to worry about that. There’s enough evidence to convict on the other parts.”

The panel’s third judge, Morgan Christen, then turned to the argument that Charette had acted in self-defense. She agreed that the situation Charette faced ­­— the bear was facing him, approaching his house, and leaning on his fence — made for a compelling self-defense case, with one problem: Charette didn’t report the shooting to authorities.

After some discussion, Rhodes argued that “the burden of proof is on the government to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that my client did not have a subjective good-faith belief in self-defense.” Judge Tallman voiced doubts that this was the case.

The attorney and judges then sparred over whether Charette’s conviction raised separation-of-powers issues.

Assistant U.S. attorney Leif Johnson, representing the United States, then made his case, engaging in a back-and-forth with the judges over the self-defense claims involved.

Judge Smith pointed out that the government had never denied its burden to prove that Charette had shot the bear in self-defense. The panel also grilled Johnson on Charette’s not getting to testify on his encounter with the bear.

Johnson emphasized Charette’s not reporting the killing to authorities, which he argued violated the Endangered Species Act, even if he had acted in self-defense and been able to testify. “Even if the defendant had had the opportunity to say, ‘I was scared to death,’ that still would not have been a full defense because he didn’t make that report,” he said.

In his rebuttal, Rhodes gave some factual clarifications, and called for his client’s conviction to be vacated and remanded for judgment of acquittal.

The date of the ruling is not certain.

Reporter Patrick Reilly can be reached at preilly@dailyinterlake.com, or at 758-4407.

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