The North Dakota Supreme Court Thursday reversed and remanded sentences for Chase Duane Swanson and Madison Beth West.
Swanson, 24, of Bowman, and West, 29, of Dickinson, were found guilty in September of conspiracy to commit murder, a class AA felony.
Both were sentenced to life without parole.
The charges stem from the death of Nicholas Johnson, 23, of Rhame, who was found strangled and beaten to death in a room at the El-Vu motel in Bowman in August 2016.
Swanson's attorney, Thomas Murtha, of Murtha Law Office in Dickinson, argued to the Supreme Court in June that the district court’s jury instructions did not properly inform the jury on the culpability needed for a charge of conspiracy to commit murder.
Murtha challenged the idea that anyone conspire to accidentally kill someone in a fight.
"You can't do intentionally 'or' knowingly for conspiracy," he told The Dickinson Press. "You can do intentionally, but when you put the 'or knowingly' in there, the state no longer has to prove it was anybody's purpose to kill." He added, "Conspiracies only apply to intentional stuff. By including both, the state made it easier for itself to prove the case."
According to the unanimous court opinion, filed by Justice Jon J. Jensen: "The jury instructions allowed Swanson to be convicted of a conspiracy to 'knowingly' cause the death of another human being. He argues conspiracy to 'knowingly' cause the death of another human being is a noncognizable offense because it does not require the actor to have had an intent to cause the death."
The opinion concludes: "Conspiracy to 'knowingly' commit a murder is a non-cognizable offense because it allows an individual to be convicted of the offense without an intent to cause the death of another human being. We reverse the judgment of conviction with regard to the charge of conspiracy to commit murder, and remand to the district court for a new trial on that charge."
Murtha said he was satisfied with the supreme court's decision.
"I feel really confident about our justice system," he said. "A lot of attorneys and just people in general can use that in the future to understand the difference between the intent we have in our criminal statutes."
Bowman County State's Attorney Andrew J.Q. Weiss said his office was in the process of determining their next action.
"We're currently reviewing it," Weiss said. "Beyond that, we don't have any comment at this time."