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Challenge against judge in Helena negligent homicide case set to be resolved

Posted at 7:48 AM, Apr 14, 2020
and last updated 2020-04-14 10:25:01-04

A motion to disqualify the judge who oversaw a negligent homicide trial in Helena last year is now set to be resolved.

Gregg Trude and his attorneys had challenged the impartiality of District Court Judge Michael McMahon. They could drop that challenge after reaching an agreement with prosecutors.

Trude pleaded guilty to negligent homicide last September in the shooting death of Dr. Eugene “Buzz” Walton. The two men were returning from a hunting trip on Oct. 28, 2018. Walton was pulling his rifle out of the back seat of Trude’s truck when Trude’s rifle went off.

In October, McMahon sentenced Trude to 20 years in prison, with all but 3 ½ years suspended.

Trude’s attorneys filed a motion to disqualify McMahon, pointing to a statement he made during the sentencing hearing. McMahon said he had known Walton – a sports physician – because he worked with student-athletes at Capital High School, where McMahon has been a coach.

The Montana Supreme Court assigned Ed McLean, a retired district court judge from Missoula County, to review the case. In a hearing earlier this year, McMahon testified he had met Walton briefly several years ago, but did not have an extensive personal or professional relationship with him. He also said he didn’t have concerns about his ability to be impartial in the case.

On Friday, McLean issued an opinion, finding that McMahon had not violated the Montana Code of Judicial Conduct, and saying he acted with “integrity and honesty” in the case. He then referred the agreement between the prosecution and defense to McMahon for a final hearing.

As part of the agreement, officially filed Monday, Trude would withdraw his motions to disqualify the judge and to change his guilty plea. He would also waive his right to challenge his conviction.

In exchange, Trude would be given the ability to seek parole or a review of his sentence. McMahon had originally said Trude would not be eligible for parole until he served a full 3 ½ years.

Under the agreement, prosecutors would not appear in opposition at Trude’s parole or sentence review hearing. If he receives parole or a reduced sentence, Trude would agree to spend 500 hours on a hunter safety course or other form of community service.

The agreement also calls for Trude to pay more than $3.7 million in restitution to Walton’s wife, Leslie. He would forfeit his firearms, ammunition and a motorcycle to be resold, with the proceeds going toward that restitution.

According to court documents, Leslie Walton opposed the agreement. She and her children would still be allowed to oppose parole or sentence review.

McMahon will consider the agreement at a resentencing hearing Wednesday at 4 p.m. Trude will appear by video from the Cascade County Detention Center.