Court sets aside conviction in grizzly shootings

AP

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A grizzly bear in Northwest Montana. (Hungry Horse News file)

BILLINGS — A federal appeals court has set aside the conviction of a Ferndale man who shot three grizzly bears that he claimed killed some of his chickens.

A three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Wednesday that a magistrate judge erroneously rejected Dan Calvert Wallen’s contention that he killed the bears out of fear for himself and his family.

Wallen was found guilty in a bench trial by a single judge in May 2015 of killing three grizzly bears a year earlier in the Ferndale area with a .22 rifle. The bears had been getting into his chicken coop. Wallen claimed the bears were 20-30 feet away when he fired the final shots and were a threat.

Under federal law, lone judges can consider misdemeanor cases in federal court in which a defendant faces “petty” consequences, which are defined as a maximum sentence of six months of incarceration and a fine of up to $5,000. Wallen’s attorney argued that he should have been granted a trial by a jury of his peers because his sentence – $15,000 in restitution and three years probation – was beyond the measure of “petty” consequences.

Prosecutors had argued that conflicting statements from Wallen after the killings undermined his claims of self-defense. But the panel said Wallen could make such claims even if his fears were unreasonable.

The decision sends the case back to a lower court for a new trial.

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