Friday, September 26, 2014

In murder case, letter raises questions

Victimís daughter claims police told her to falsify statements

Express Staff Writer

    Recently revealed evidence raises the possibility that a man convicted in 1985 of first-degree murder for killing his ex-wife in Jerome County could be released from prison.
    Jaimi Dean Charboneau claimed as early as 2002 in a post-conviction relief petition that a daughter of the victim had recanted earlier statements regarding the death of her mother. But since Charboneau had no physical evidence in 2002, and since the daughter in question had died four years earlier, his claims were disregarded and his case for acquittal or a new trial was dismissed.
    However, in 2011, the physical evidence Charboneau needed finally surfaced, after being concealed, ostensibly by state officials, for nearly 21 years.
    Charboneau, now 54, is serving a life prison sentence without the possibility of parole for the shooting death on July 1, 1984, of Marilyn Arbaugh. However, 5th District Judge Robert Elgee ordered on Sept. 19 that the life sentence be vacated.
    Elgee, presiding judge in Charboneau’s latest post-conviction relief case, filed in 2011, declined to vacate Charboneau’s conviction, but ordered that he be resentenced. Elgee made his ruling from the bench, and his reasons will be explained later in a written ruling. Resentencing has not yet been scheduled, but is expected to be held about 90 days from Elgee’s ruling.
    Charboneau, meanwhile, remains incarcerated, for the time being in the Jerome County jail.
    Elgee, who normally presides in Blaine County, was assigned to the case after the disqualification of Jerome County Judge John K. Butler.
    Elgee’s ruling was primarily based on the new physical evidence brought forth in the case, a letter written in 1989 by Tira Arbaugh, the daughter of the murder victim.
    Tira Arbaugh was 14 when her mother died of multiple .22 caliber gunshot wounds.
    She claimed in her letter, which is an exhibit in the Charbonneau case file, that she was coerced by police and prosecutors to falsify statements regarding the shooting, to withhold other information and to “get rid of” a second .22 caliber rifle that may have been involved.
    Tira Arbaugh, neither in original statements to police or in the letter, ever claimed to have witnessed the shooting at her mother’s home, a ranch in rural Jerome County. However, she and her older teenage sister Tiffnie Arbaugh were at the home when her mother was killed.
    The version of events that emerged from the trial when Charboneau was convicted was that he and Marilyn Arbaugh had been recently divorced but were still seeing each other, possibly intimately. The day of the shooting, both were in a barn at the Arbaugh residence, where they had been checking on horses. An argument ensued, likely concerning fidelity, and Charboneau shot Marilyn Arbaugh multiple times.
    Tiffnie Arbaugh came to the barn, saw her mother wounded and on the ground with Charboneau standing nearby holding a rifle. She then went back into the home to call police and to get Tira Arbaugh. The girls reported that they heard more shots fired before going outside.
    When police arrived, Charboneau was found in a field near the barn with a .22 caliber rifle on the ground nearby. He was then arrested.
    According to case records, Charboneau acknowledged shooting Marilyn Arbaugh, but said she first pointed the gun at him and he took it away from her after she pulled the trigger and it misfired. Charboneau claimed that Marilyn Arbaugh was only wounded when Tiffnie Arbaugh came to the barn and that Tiffnie Arbaugh, upset and claiming that her mother had ruined her life, fired a fatal shot with a second gun, a .22 caliber pistol.
    The official version of events acknowledges that Tiffnie Arbaugh brought the pistol to the murder scene, but states that it was “accidentally discharged behind her.”
    The Tira Arbaugh letter is seven pages long and hand written. It was addressed to Judge Philip Becker, now retired, who presided over the Charboneau murder trial.
    “I am writing this letter to you because I believe you should know the truth about some of the things that happened the day my mom died and the truth about some of the things that I was told to say and told not to say,” Tira Arbaugh wrote. “I keep having bad dreams about all of this, and I can’t talk to anyone about this, even my sister.”
    The letter makes several references to police and/or prosecutors telling Tira Arbaugh to falsify information, and to police coaching her on what to write in her statements. It also provides conflicting information on her whereabouts and that of her sister during the shooting.
    The letter does not provide information exonerating Charboneau, or implicating Tiffnie Arbaugh in the killing. However, Tira Arbaugh wrote that a third weapon, another .22 caliber rifle, was present at the time of the shooting and that police and prosecutors told her to get rid of it. She further wrote that she and other Arbaugh family members buried the gun and were told by prosecutors and police to keep it buried.
    Judge Elgee has presided over the Charboneau post-conviction relief case for three years. In a ruling in April of this year, he found that the Tira Arbaugh letter was authentic and not a forgery and that had it surfaced earlier, it could have affected rulings regarding Charboneau.
    In his April ruling, a “finding of facts and conclusions of law” document, Elgee described the Charboneau case as a “monstrous puzzle,” with numerous contradictions and unanswered questions. The judge wrote that the Tira Arbaugh letter raises further questions as to what actually happened on the day that Marilyn Arbaugh was killed.

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