Editor’s Note: The following article was originally printed in the Aug. 14, 2019 edition of the Great Falls Tribune. It is reprinted with permission.
The Montana Supreme Court issued a decision Tuesday to allow a new trial for a man convicted of negligent homicide in Toole County, ruling in favor of the defendant’s claim of ineffective assistance of counsel in the 2016 trial.
The court’s opinion, delivered by Justice Ingrid Gustafson, ruled that attorneys for Charles Geoffrey Santoro “rendered ineffective assistance of counsel by failing to serve a subpoena upon or otherwise preserve the testimony” of the investigating Montana Highway Patrol trooper in the 2013 hit-and-run case in Sunburst.
Santoro was convicted of negligent homicide in the death of Levi Rowell and two counts of criminal endangerment as Tiffany Rowell and Justin Gallup were also injured in the incident outside of the VFW bar in Sunburst in August of 2013.
The court also ruled that the district court erred in failing to deduct $50,000 in payments made by Santoro’s insurance toward restitution for Tiffany Rowell and Gallup.
Santoro’s appellate defender, Chad Wright, was not available for comment on Wednesday, and Montana Department of Justice spokesperson Anastasia Burton said the office could not comment on ongoing legal matters.
Levi Rowell was killed following an altercation with Santoro in the parking lot of the Sunburst VFW on Aug. 18, 2013, although accounts varied on the circumstances, according to court documents.
Documents state Levi Rowell attempted to follow Santoro outside of the bar following a verbal altercation, as Levi believed that Santoro had damaged his vehicle.
Tiffany Rowell and Gallup reportedly convinced Levi to remain inside until Santoro left, but when they later went outside, Santoro had not departed.
The three then approached Santoro’s vehicle, with Levi Rowell leading the way. The vehicle’s door was either already open, or Levi opened it, according to documents.
Levi and Santoro, who was sitting in the driver’s seat with the car running, began yelling at each other.
Santoro told police that Levi began choking him, and he attempted to leave the scene in reverse as he was losing consciousness. The door of the reversing car caught Levi and dragged him underneath the vehicle, while Tiffany and Gallup were “cast outward” from the door.
Gallup told police that he had attempted to restrain Levi Rowell from behind and the altercation never became physical prior to Santoro reversing the truck, according to prior reports.
Relying on the testimony of three eyewitnesses and pictures taken at the scene, the state argued at trial that Santoro then put the vehicle in drive and ran over Levi Rowell a second time.
Santoro maintained a “justifiable use of force defense,” the opinion states, arguing that he was justified in swiftly reversing his vehicle to stop Levi Rowell from choking him.
Neither testimony of investigating law enforcement nor an accident reconstructionist was presented at trial by the state.
The state’s three eyewitnesses who testified that Santoro ran over Levi Rowell a second time all either admitted to that being inconsistent with what they immediately relayed to police or admitted on cross-examination “that they really had not seen Rowell hit when Santoro drove forward,” the court document states.
MHP Trooper Christopher Garza’s report appeared to be “inconsistent with the state’s theory of prosecution – based on physical evidence of the scene, the report indicates that Rowell had been dragged under Santoro’s truck,” while traveling in reverse but did not support the theory that Rowell had been run over a second time, the document states.
In district court, Santoro’s defense attorney unsuccessfully attempted to submit the testimony of Garza, who had since moved out of Montana, through another MHP representative.
“From the argument, it is clear (Santoro’s defense attorney) did nothing on a pretrial basis to preserve Garza’s testimony,” the Supreme Court opinion reads.
The opinion also called the defense attorney’s attempts to subpoena Garza “untimely and ineffective,” despite Garza being a “material, crucial witness with evidence directly contesting the state’s trial theory.”
After the trial, Santoro unsuccessfully filed a motion for a new trial on the basis that the state should have been required to call Garza as a witness, as his testimony “contained exculpatory evidence,” the opinion reads.
Santoro was sentenced in 2017 to 20 years in Montana State Prison with five suspended for the negligent homicide charge, plus two 10-year sentences, with five suspended, on the criminal endangerment charges. The criminal endangerment sentences were to be served concurrently but on top of the negligent homicide sentence.
The Montana Department of Justice took over the case from Toole County in December 2013 and subsequently filed to dismiss the charges against Santoro without prejudice, allowing investigators more time to collect evidence and interview witnesses. Charges were refiled against Santoro in March 2014 by the DOJ.
In the matter of restitution for Tiffany Rowell and Gallup, the Supreme Court wrote that the district court erred in not deducting $25,000 to each party that was paid by Santoro’s insurance.
“Where insurance payouts are derived from the offender’s insurance, they should properly be deducted from any restitution award ordered against the offender,” the opinion reads. “Failure to do so would provide double recovery constituting an unjust enrichment to the injured party.”