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Defense rests case in Leon Ford trial; closing arguments set for Tuesday

Leon Ford on the Stand
Posted at 9:28 PM, Jun 19, 2023
and last updated 2023-06-19 23:28:23-04

HELENA — Attorneys in the trial of Leon Ford are set to make their final cases to the jury Tuesday morning, after the defense called its final witnesses on Monday.

Ford, who is charged with deliberate homicide and tampering with evidence, testified in his own defense for a second day. Over several hours, he answered questions about his actions at and after the time John “Mike” Crites was last heard from alive.

Ford and Crites owned neighboring properties along Turk Road, in a rural area outside Birdseye, northwest of Helena. The two men had a long-running disagreement over land access, and Crites had placed a gate across a road Ford used to reach his land. They had previous confrontations over the issue – including one in 2007, when Ford said he and Crites each were carrying guns.

Ford said he traveled from his home in Washington state to Montana in June 2011 to spray his property for weeds. He sent Crites a letter, asking him to have the gate open when he arrived.

Instead, Ford said he arrived June 25 to find the gate had been welded shut. He said he met with Crites that night and believed they had come to an agreement that he would open the barricade.

“The way we left it Saturday night is that there was no more need to talk about it,” Ford said Monday. “If it was down, it was down, and if it wasn’t, then I would turn and go back to talk to law enforcement and file a complaint – and as I started to say ‘go get an attorney,’ that’s when he cut me off and said, ‘No, I don’t want another lawsuit.’”

On June 26 – the day Crites made his last known phone call – Ford said he returned to find the barricade down, and he never saw Crites. He said he spent that day checking the roads on his property for nails and other debris, after a neighbor warned him about possible “booby traps.” He said he sprayed for weeds on June 27 and 28, and that he first learned Crites was missing when he met law enforcement officers on Turk Road later on the 28th.

In cross-examination, prosecuting attorney Leo Gallagher repeatedly questioned Ford about what he said were inconsistencies in his testimony now, compared with what he said to investigators during that June 28 interaction and an interrogation in January 2012.

In one example, Gallagher pointed to a statement when Ford told officers he had been spraying weeds for three days, since he now says he spent the first day checking the roads. Ford said he had been referring generally to the process and preparation for spraying.

“Isn’t it so that you were untruthful with those deputies on the 28th?” Gallagher asked.

“I’ve never attempted to be untruthful about any of this over the last 12 years,” Ford replied.

The defense’s final witness, private investigator Craig Campbell, testified briefly. He discussed the visibility of the locations near MacDonald Pass where Crites’ remains were discovered, as well as the fact that some of the DNA evidence discussed during the trial came to light only recently.

After Campbell’s testimony, the defense rested its case. Attorney Palmer Hoovestal then asked Judge Mike Menahan to dismiss the case against Ford. He argued that the prosecution had not provided enough evidence for a reasonable jury to find his client guilty.

“There is absolutely no evidence whatsoever connecting Leon Ford to the death of Michael Crites,” Hoovestal said.

Hoovestal also claimed the prosecution had improperly failed to provide the defense with soil samples that he argued could have helped established Crites’ time of death and potentially cleared Ford.

Menahan ruled against the defense on both motions. He said looking at the evidence “in the most favorable light” for the prosecution, as required by the law, there was enough to submit the case to the jury. He also said there wasn’t evidence the prosecution had acted in bad faith to withhold the soil sample.

The prosecution and defense are scheduled to give their closing arguments at 9 a.m. Tuesday. The case will then be in the hands of the jury.

Follow MTN's previous coverage of the Ford trial: Leon Ford takes the stand in his own defense, accused in killing of Mike Crites