BISMARCK, N.D. – A judge on Monday dismissed charges against a former principal who was accused of setting fire to his private North Dakota high school in March, a week after a ruling that statements the defendant made to police were improperly obtained and couldn't be used at his trial.
Southwest District Judge William Herauf dismissed the case against 30-year-old Thomas Sander without prejudice, which means the state could still decide to bring charges against him later. Prosecutors had filed a motion to drop the charges last week.
Sander had pleaded not guilty to felony arson and endangerment by fire in a blaze that forced the closure of Trinity High School, a Roman Catholic school in Dickinson.
At a July 1 hearing, Herauf threw out some police interviews with Sander and ruled that Sander was not read his rights before part of a police interrogation and that some of his statements were coerced.
Stark County State's Attorney Tom Henning said without the evidence, it was unlikely the prosecution could get a conviction. But he said the dismissed charges now allow for more facts to come out.
"In my opinion, it's far preferable it go as a dismissal that allows refiling of the case with new evidence within the statute of limitations than simply to have it come up with a not guilty verdict by a jury with inadequate information," Henning said.
Lloyd Suhr, one of Sander's defense attorneys, said Monday that his firm was pleased the state had decided not to pursue the case any further.
"You have to have evidence before you can prosecute and they had no remaining evidence against Mr. Sander," Suhr said, "which I think highlights the problems with the alleged confessions to begin with."
Suhr said the case has been difficult for Sander and his family.
Sander's father moved to Dickinson and began renting a house after his son was charged, Suhr said. He posted the $50,000 bail for his son and the former principal was released on the condition he stay in the custody of his father.
Suhr said he wasn't sure about the family's immediate plans now that Sander is free.
"They literally uprooted their whole lives so that they could address these charges and now that the charges have been dismissed they're obviously excited to return to some state of normalcy, as much as can be expected following something like this," Suhr said.
I'm of the considered opinion that the door should not be closed
"It does not affect the further investigation and I'm of the considered opinion that the door should not be closed on further investigation and continued prosecution of the matter. And at the present time, it was not going to result in conviction."