Federal prosecutor who tried Montana Freemen accused of misconduct in Billings drug case

Posted at 4:12 PM, May 16, 2018
and last updated 2018-07-05 14:57:40-04

BILLINGS – The former U.S. Attorney for Montana who prosecuted the 1998 Freemen case is accused of withholding information from a defendant in a decade-old Billings drug trafficking case.

The complaint was filed by Chief Montana Disciplinary Counsel Michael Cotter with the Commission on Practice of the Montana Supreme Court in late April against James Seykora, who may be best known for prosecuting the Freemen for their 81-day-long standoff in Garfield County.

According to the complaint, the U.S. Department of Justice and Office of Professional Responsibility began investigating Seykora in 2014 and concluded wrongdoing in 2017.

The two counts in the complaint include making a false statement and failing to make timely disclosures to the defense of all evidence or information known to the prosecutor.

Seykora prosecuted Heather Schutz and Lashawn Johnson a decade ago in connection with a drug trafficking case in Billings.

After her arrest, Schutz provided detectives information that benefited their case against Johnson.

Schutz was indicted on one count of narcotics conspiracy and one count of possessing a firearm in relation a drug trafficking offense.

She pleaded guilty to the charges through a plea agreement that provided the possibility of rewarding her with a lesser sentence for her testimony against Johnson.

Seykora filed a motion at that point for a reduced sentence, claiming Schutz provided truthful, complete and reliable testimony that resulted in an indictment.

But according to court documents, Schutz never did testify before the grand jury, and there was no mention in the document that the truthful information she provided was during an interview with detectives.

According to the complaint, Seykora told the judge at Schutz’ sentencing hearing that she had testified before the grand jury, even though she had not.

For her cooperation, Schutz received a sentence that was about 30 percent less than the federal guidelines for her offenses.

Three months after pleading guilty to the indictment, Johnson was indicted on charges of narcotics conspiracy, substantive narcotics, and possession of a firearm in furtherance of a drug trafficking crime.

Two weeks prior to trial, Seykora provided Johnson’s attorneys a copy of Schutz’ plea agreement but allegedly did not provide a copy of the motion to reduce her sentence.

The defense never received a copy of Schutz’s’ statements to the FBI.

She testified against Johnson at his trial and Seykora avoided asking her any questions about the benefit she would receive for her truthful testimony, according to the complaint.

Johnson was convicted at trial and sentenced to 420 months in prison.

After his conviction, Johnson filed a request for post-conviction relief, arguing that he was never informed of the government’s agreement with Schutz.

The federal district court ruled that Seykora failed to uphold the standard expected of a federal prosecutor because he denied the jury the opportunity to weigh Schutz’s testimony against the benefit she was receiving.

“Because her story changed, Schutz’s credibility was of significant importance,” according to the complaint. “Therefore, evidence that she had already received a significant reduction in her sentence was evidence the jury should have heard to allow it to determine whether she was being truthful.”

In his complaint, Cotter asks for Seykora to be cited, a formal hearing, and for the Adjudicatory Panel of the Commission to make a report of its findings and recommendations.

Reporting by Aja Goare for MTN News