Wednesday, December 07, 2022

Jury finds Eureka man not guilty in domestic incident

The Western News | November 18, 2022 7:00 AM

A Eureka man who faced burglary and partner or family member assault charges was found not guilty by a jury last week in Lincoln County District Court.

Authorities had accused Benjamin Joseph Brown, 43, of breaking into his girlfriend’s home in December 2021.

But jurors, who deliberated for less than one hour, came back with a not guilty verdict on Thursday, Nov. 10.

According to court documents, Deputy County Attorney Jeffrey Zwang called Brown’s girlfriend and two officers from the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office - Detective Dan Holskey and Deputy Clint Heintz.

Public defenders Keenan Gallagher and Liam Gallagher called a character witness for Brown - Mark Payne. Brown had faced a 20-year sentence in the Montana State Prison if convicted of felony burglary.

“This is the right result in this case. Ben Brown was wrongfully accused, and the Lincoln County Attorney overcharged this case,” Keenan Gallagher said in an email. “The jury wasn’t interested in playing games. We thank the jury for their time and the hard work they put in on this case. It’s unfortunate that we had to proceed all the way to a jury trial for these charges to finally be dismissed.”

"Naturally, we are disappointed with the result, but we respect the jury’s verdict," Deputy County Attorney Jeffrey Zwang said in an email. "Unfortunately, the evidence in this case was not sufficient to convince the jury beyond a reasonable doubt. The jury in this case was attentive and considerate, as is typical of juries here in Lincoln County, and we are thankful for their service.

"Defense counsel’s comments are misleading and demonstrably untrue. Any attorney should know very well that a not guilty verdict at trial does not render the accusation wrongful or false," Zwang said. "In fact, every charge filed in court must be supported by evidence, which must be reviewed and deemed sufficient by an impartial judge before the charge is even allowed to be filed, much less proceed to trial."

Zwang also said that Brown and the county Attorney's Office had reached an agreement where Brown pleaded no contest to the offense of Partner or Family Member Assault.

"Prior to sentencing, the defendant (Brown) changed his mind, chose to withdraw his plea and proceed to trial, which the law allows. Although these facts are a matter of public record, they are not admissible evidence, and they cannot be

presented to the jury at trial. These facts demonstrate that defense counsel’s comment about wrongful accusations is simply not true."

Gallagher also addressed what he believes is a bigger problem in the county.

“This case brings into focus a larger issue at play in Lincoln County. The Lincoln County Attorney’s office has an abysmal record at jury trials,” Gallagher said. “Juries act as the conscience of the community and a check on government overreach. The juries in Lincoln County have repeatedly, and in no uncertain terms, told the Lincoln County Attorney’s Office that the evidence does not support the offenses they’ve filed.

“For whatever reason, the Lincoln County Attorney’s Office chooses to ignore this clear message, placing a strain on the county’s limited resources. This is not the way the justice system should work, but until the Lincoln County Attorney’s Office chooses to behave in a more reasonable manner, there will continue to be jury trials, and we can only hope that jurors will continue to protect the rights of members of this community who are unjustly accused.”

Zwang offered the following statement in response to Gallagher's comments, saying "Regarding defense counsel’s broader comments about the Lincoln County Attorney’s Office, I am generally not permitted to make public statements about ongoing investigations and proceedings. I cannot fully and fairly address defense counsel’s comments without discussing ongoing investigations and proceedings here in Lincoln County. However, should any citizen have questions or concerns about the justice system, I would note that court proceedings are generally open to the public and suggest that you come and observe."

According to court documents, law enforcement had several run-ins with Brown in 2021.

Then, on Dec. 2, Deputy Clint Heintz headed to the girlfriend’s home after she called 911 and told dispatchers that Brown was drunk and tended to get violent when intoxicated. In an affidavit, Heintz reported arriving on scene about 4:32 a.m. He spotted Brown’s truck, but not him.

Joined by the Eureka police chief, Heintz cleared the home and made contact with the girlfriend, who had locked herself in the bathroom. When they failed to find Brown, she moved his vehicle down the driveway in case he returned for the truck, court documents said.

Authorities returned to the home later that morning, about 8:50 a.m., for another sighting of Brown. According to court documents, Brown was gone when Detective Dan Holskey arrived at the home.

Later, Heintz learned that authorities in Libby arrested Brown when he arrived for a court hearing on a driving under the influence charge.

Following the arrest, Heintz sat down with Brown’s girlfriend to go through the morning’s events. She told him that he was splitting wood at her house when she went to bed after sundown. Brown, who had been drinking, was gone when she awoke, according to court documents.

She texted him and went back to bed. At some future point, Brown returned and began banging on her door. She told Heintz that she called 911, but only asked for a law enforcement response after he got the key to the home her realtor kept out front for showings. She retreated to the bathroom, telling Heintz she was “scared [Brown] would hurt her.”

He left shortly before law enforcement arrived, she said.

After Heintz and Eureka police departed the scene, she recalled going back to bed. She was reawakened when her dogs began barking at Brown, who fetched his truck. He then allegedly called her several times from a local pub.

Brown allegedly returned to her home again. This time, the realtor’s key was gone. Not finding it, he punched a hole in the side door and got inside, court documents said. That precipitated the second 911 call, the girlfriend told Heintz.

She ran out the door, clutching the house phone, which she used to call authorities. She put that on the bumper of the pickup. When Brown caught up with her, he allegedly missed the house phone, but took her mobile phone, “shut if off and said, ‘no phone calls,” according to court documents.

Afterward, he got back into his truck and left, she said.

In Holskey’s narrative, also attached to the affidavit, he recalled listening to one of the messages Brown allegedly left for his girlfriend. In it, Holskey wrote, Brown can be heard accusing her of dating someone else and insults her.