SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) — A lower court improperly overturned the conviction and sentence of a Rapid City man charged with molesting a 4-year-old girl at his motorcycle-repair shop in 2001, the South Dakota Supreme Court ruled Thursday.
Dale Guthmiller, 54, was convicted of criminal pedophilia in 2002 and sentenced to life in prison, but he was released last year after a Pierre judge ruled that comments made by the trial judge prevented Guthmiller from getting a fair trial.
The high court, in a unanimous opinion released Thursday, said visiting 6th Circuit Court Judge James W. Anderson made improper comments during the trial, stating that Rapid City police don’t arrest innocent people and insinuating that Guthmiller was not stating everything that happened in the shop’s bathroom.
But even though the comments reflected negatively on Guthmiller, they did not amount to a structural error, Justice John Konenkamp wrote in the opinion.
“Yet solely the fact that the judge made inappropriate comments does not mean that the judge was biased,” he wrote.
The Supreme Court’s reversal reinstates the conviction and sentence of Guthmiller, who has been jailed in Rapid City since June on suspicion of violating a protection order.
Arnie Laubach, Guthmiller’s attorney, said he felt that the judge’s comments and the trial counsel’s failure to address them rose to the level of granting him a new trial.
“I’m just very surprised,” he said Thursday. “I thought we had compelling case law. I thought we had compelling facts. The Supreme Court saw it otherwise.”
The justices said that despite defense counsel’s failure to object to the remarks, Guthmiller did not meet his burden of showing that the jury’s verdict would likely have been different absent trial counsel’s errors.
Guthmiller was sentenced to life in prison instead of the normal 25-year punishment under South Dakota’s habitual offender law because of his past felonies. He appealed, but the State Supreme Court in 2003 upheld the conviction and life sentence.
In 2004, he petitioned to be released from prison, saying the judge in the original trial had made statements that violated his right to a fair trial. That petition was denied, but he petitioned again in 2009.
Guthmiller was released from prison last year after his conviction was vacated but was returned to jail on a $1 million bond last June after authorities accused him of violating a protection order by being too close to his accuser’s home.
In their opinion, the justices said Judge Anderson’s initial improper comment came during jury questioning, when defense counsel asked: “Does anybody feel that as I said before, where there’s smoke there’s fire? If someone has been charged with a crime that necessarily means that, you know, he’s done something?”
Anderson interjected that the attorney’s statement was not right.
“The police in South Dakota don’t just go out on the street and round people up and bring them in here, so something had to be done. The question is will you make the State prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the Defendant is guilty or not.”
The justices said the judge insinuated that Guthmiller must have done something wrong or the police would not have arrested him.
“This comment was clearly improper,” they said.
The other inappropriate comment came after Guthmiller testified that he had taken the child to the bathroom in his repair shop three times. Asked by his attorney what happened during those times, Guthmiller replied, “She went to the bathroom.”
The judge interrupted and said, “Wait a minute. Something happened but let’s be a little more specific”
“Defense counsel did not object, seek a curative instruction, or move for a mistrial,” the justices said.