Judge dismisses prosecutorial misconduct argument in manslaughter case

Published: Mar. 4, 2021 at 6:20 PM CST
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RAPID CITY, S.D. (KOTA) - A years-long legal battle around the death of a Keystone teenager remains in the courtroom after a Rapid City judge denied requests to drop the case, despite evidence prosecutors may have tampered with the witnesses.

In a tense Wednesday morning motions hearing, the defense representing Maxton Pfeiffer, 21, who allegedly accidentally shot and killed 19-year-old Ty Scott in Keystone in June 2018, presented the argument that the Pennington County State’s Attorney Office told three men who were present at the scene of the shooting to not talk to defense attorneys.

The defense requested Judge Jeffrey Connolly to dismiss the case or, at least, call the three witnesses to a deposition hearing. Pennington County State Attorney Mark Vargo and Josh Satterlee, a Rapid City attorney and former prosecutors on this case, were called to the stand to testify.

Dana Hanna, an attorney leading the defense, argued Vargo specifically told the witnesses not to speak to them, alleging Vargo tried to interfere with the defense’s ability to argue in court.

On the stand, Vargo told the court he gave admonitions to the witnesses advising them of their rights and who they could talk to prior to a trial and later told them they have the right to speak to whomever they’d like. However, he couldn’t recall if he said not to speak to Hanna’s defense team specifically.

Yet, Satterlee, who was witness to the state’s attorney discussion with the men, remembers Vargo telling witnesses that defense lawyers “may not have your best interests at heart.” He didn’t know if Vargo was referring to Hanna’s defense team specifically, or if he was speaking generally.

The three witnesses told the court the state’s attorney never said to ignore talking to defense lawyers about the case.

Ultimately, Judge Connolly ruled in favor of the prosecution. He said the defense did not provide enough proof that Vargo or any state’s attorney attempted to restrict the witnesses’ communication with the defense. However, he noted “there has been some misconduct” and the evidence brought forth may need to be considered for future court proceedings.

Contact with Witnesses

The defense said they made multiple attempts to call and communicate in person with witnesses involved in the case, but could not get in touch with them. They also said they visited their houses and dropped off business cards in hopes of reaching them, but received no response.

Hanna produced a digital recording of a phone conversation between himself, Evelyn Villalobos and Robert Dawson, a private investigator on the defense team.

In the phone call, Evelyn was heard saying that Joshio Villalobos, her brother and one of three men present when Scott was shot, refused to talk to the defense lawyers. Joshio’s sister also claimed in the recording that Joshio told her he would not talk to anyone but a state’s attorney.

The defense later called Evelyn to the witness stand to give testimony on the recorded phone call. She told the court Joshio mentioned to her that he would not talk to anyone about the case. When pressed, the sister claimed her brother was told to avoid talking to defense attorneys if they attempted to reach him. She cited Joshio could not bear to talk about the shooting and that he struggled with depression, which would have a negative effect on his mental health if he had to recollect the shooting.

Following Evelyn’s testimony, the court heard further testimony from Joshio, Cody Siemonsma and Damon Picotte. All three were friends of Maxton Pfeiffer and witnesses to Scott’s death.

During their examination, all three men told Circuit Court Judge Jeffrey Connolly they did not receive suggestions from state’s attorneys to ignore or avoid talking to defense lawyers about the case.

Siemonsma added the state actually told him it would be better if he responded to the defense’s questions. However, he added his phone - which Hanna and company attempted to call to talk to him about the case - had been confiscated by Pennington County authorities.

“I don’t want to be in a courtroom like this one, and I know the results would be very different,” Vargo said of the consequences of tampering witness testimony.

Closing Arguments

In closing arguments, Hanna alleged someone in the state’s attorney office said something “to chilling effect” to dissuade witnesses from talking to him and his team. He said the three men’s testimony was prejudiced - the men could not answer some of their questions, and Joshio specifically interpreted the state’s advice as a suggestion to avoid talking to defense attorneys.

The state responded by calling the defense’s accusations of prosecutorial misconduct “baseless” and “insulting.” They defined the defense’s repeated attempts to contact witnesses at their homes and via phone as bordering on stalking.

State’s attorneys also said the defense had no reason to call Evelyn to testify, as she was not a witness to the crime, and her testimony on Joshio’s desire to avoid Hanna’s team - whose credibility the defense called in to question based on statements given without their inquiry - was steeped in a desire to protect her brother.

After the motion was denied, Connolly set a status hearing on the case for March 26.

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