Days before alleged Bowman County murderer, Madison West, was scheduled to appear in court for a new trial stemming from the murder of a Rhame man in a Bowman motel in 2016, she was instead quietly sentenced to 50 years in prison, with 15 years suspended, and three years of probation.
West was originally found guilty and sentenced to life without parole for the crime, but the decision was later overturned by the North Dakota Supreme Court, prompting the new trial.
The original life sentences were overturned after Swanson's attorney, Thomas Murtha, of Murtha Law Office in Dickinson, argued to the Supreme Court in June of 2019 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 it was possible to conspire to “accidentally kill someone” in a fight.
"Intentionally 'or' knowingly is needed for it to be conspiracy," he told The Dickinson Press in an interview last year. "You can do it 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 non cognizable offense because it does not require the actor to have had an intent to cause the death."
The opinion concluded: "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."
West's alleged co-conspirator, Chase Swanson, was also in court for a status conference and was slated for his new hearing at that time.