SANDPOINT — A 1st District Court judge is overturning one of the jury verdicts rendered in a Bonner County murder trial, but is declining to grant the defendant a new trial.
A Bonner County jury convicted Michael Ryan McDermott of first-degree murder and failing to notify authorities of a death after fatally shooting Robert Cameroen Hegseth Wohali on the waning hours of March 14 or the early hours of March 15.
McDermott, 48, arranged to meet an on-again/off-again girlfriend at her recreational vehicle, which was parked on the grounds of Evergreen Towing, according to court documents. McDermott saw someone underneath the covers in the RV, prompting him to ask who it was. Wohali identified himself and McDermott allegedly slammed the door into the woman and knocked her to the floor. Wohali grabbed an ax, exited and was shot immediately outside the RV, court documents said.
McDermott and the woman hid Wohali’s body in the woods on Gold Hill in Sagle.
At trial McDermott argued he was acting in self-defense, although jurors were not persuaded and convicted him of murder and failing to notify the coroner or law enforcement following a four-day trial in October.
Following the convictions, McDermott’s defense attorneys moved to dismiss the notification charge or grant McDermott a new trial in light of a 2018 Idaho Supreme Court ruling which held that the notification offense was unconstitutional in a Kootenai County case because it violated the defendant’s privilege against self-incrimination.
In a 10-page written ruling filed on Thursday, Judge Barbara Buchanan found that, at a minimum, McDermott was required to report two pieces of information — the existence of Wohali’s body and the location of the body.
“However, McDermott could not report his knowledge of the existence and location of Wohali’s body without informing law enforcement that he had shot and killed Wohali, and placed his body in the location were it was later discovered,” Buchanan wrote.
Buchanan noted that Bonner County Prosecutor Louis Marshall argued at trial that McDermott withheld the information to escape trouble, but she added that not being compelled to provide information to law enforcement to avoid trouble “is precisely what the 5th Amendment privilege is intended to guard against.”
“The prosecutor’s own words indicate that the state in Count II sought to punish McDermott for his failure to incriminate himself; and there the 5th Amendment privilege provides McDermott with a full defense from prosecution and conviction on this charge,” Buchanan said in the ruling.
Buchanan vacated the notification conviction and dismissed the charge, ruling that it was a sufficient remedy for the constitutional violation.
Buchanan, however, declined to grant McDermott a new trial because his attorneys conceded that their client failed to report the death and focused on a defense against the first-degree murder charge. Morever, the defense didn’t point to specific evidence presented by the state solely to prove the notification charge, which could have tainted the whole trial.
“In fact, the same evidence was presented to prove both Counts I and II. As such, even if the court were to grant a new trial solely on Count I, it is likely that the exact same witnesses and evidence would be presented as in the first trial,” Buchanan concluded.
McDermott is scheduled to be sentenced on Dec. 3.
Keith Kinnaird can be reached by email at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @KeithDailyBee.