Twin man appeals jury conviction for basketball incident

Casey S. Elliott
Wednesday, February 17, 2021

A Twin Bridges man convicted for crimes resulting from his arrest at a 2019 women’s basketball game is appealing that sanction to the Montana Supreme Court.

Tom Ferris of Twin Bridges was found guilty in a jury trial last year on misdemeanor counts of resisting arrest, failure of a disorderly person to disperse and disorderly conduct. The charges stemmed when he was arrested at the March 2019 Frontier Conference women’s basketball game championship between the University of Montana Western and Carroll College.

The jury acquitted Ferris of a fourth charge, felony assault on a peace officer, determining Ferris was not responsible for the concussion Dillon Police Chief Don Guiberson received during Ferris’ arrest.

Defense Attorney Jack Morris filed the appeal Feb. 5 at the supreme court. Morris told the Dillon Tribune last week the appeal is a step in a process that may include a civil case against local officials for what he considers an improper investigation and prosecution against his client.

“There’s something in the law called ‘defamation per se.’ When witnesses basically make an allegation that someone in the case is a criminal, or assaulted a police officer that turned out not to be true, you can bring a civil action against those witnesses,” he said.

During the trial, Morris claimed that University of Montana Western Dean of Students Nicole Hazelbaker orchestrated adding the felony charge to the case. Ferris was originally charged with the three misdemeanors; the assault on a peace officer charge was added later.

Morris also argued those involved in prosecuting Ferris are too conflicted to do so fairly. Morris said Hazelbaker serves on the Dillon police commission, her husband Todd is the city’s director of operations, and county attorney Jed C. Fitch is an adjunct professor at the university.

“We believe something just doesn’t fit,” Morris added. “This is a case where someone outside – probably the attorney general’s office – should have prosecuted it because of the close relationship of all the players. I think that played a part in the acquittal on the assault charge. The jury saw the tangled mess that it was.”

The police commission reviews and recommends new hires for the police department, and would hear officer grievances if they arise, Guiberson said. Morris raised questions about the commission and its members during Ferris’ trial.

Morris added Judge Mike Salvagni erred by ruling against Ferris on a number of issues he raised prior to and during the trial. Salvagni was appointed when Fifth Judicial District Court Luke Berger recused himself from the case.

Ferris has complied with the financial obligations imposed in the six-month deferred sentence; at the end of that time period Morris could file to have the case dismissed and removed from Ferris’ record. Morris said the potential civil case would have more impact legally if the prior conviction remains.

Morris said he would like the supreme court to overturn the conviction and return the case to district court for a new trial. It would be up to Fitch’s office to seek a new trial or dismiss the charges at that point.

Fitch declined comment on the appeal.