Montana man's meth conviction overturned after key witness used drug before giving testimony

A Montana judge tossed out a man’s methamphetamine possession conviction Thursday after it was revealed an expert witness who testified against him likely stole meth from a crime lab and was under the influence while he was speaking in the courtroom.

James Donald Bachtell was arrested in June 2017 after an officer found meth residue in a glass pipe in his pocket, the Great Falls Tribune reported. Derrick Thrush, a forensic chemist for the state, was called to present his expert testimony at Bachtell’s trial in Feb. 12, 2018.

Bachtell was convicted of felony criminal possession of dangerous drugs after Thrush’s testimony, according to the Great Falls Tribune.

However, Cascade County Attorney Josh Racki called Bachtell’s lawyer Vince van der Hagen two days after the conviction to tell him that Thrush ingested meth on his way to the trial, the newspaper reported, citing a public defender’s office filing.

More than a week after the conviction, Scott Larson, the Montana Department of Justice’s Forensic Science Division, said an internal investigation revealed Thrush “removed” drug evidence submitted to the crime lab. Larson wrote in a letter that Thrush was fired and the office "not aware of any inaccuracies with the results in our final reports, but we will have to complete our investigation before we know the full parameters of this situation."

Thrush pleaded guilty to three felony drug possession charges and misdemeanors for theft and official misconduct on Aug. 14. Thrush told a co-worker he had “ingested meth” on his drive to the courtroom for his testimony on Feb. 12, the newspaper reported, citing defense filings.

Thrush reportedly admitted to taking “leftover meth” from evidence bags “5 to 6 times in the past year,” but never used the drug in the lab.

District Court Judge John Parker determined that Thrush impeded Bachtell’s right to a fair trial.

“The court heard credible testimony indicating that Mr. Thrush stole items of physical evidence, namely meth, from the custody of the Montana State Crime Lab,” Parker determined. “The evidence proved that Mr. Thrush, by his own admission, ingested meth into his system while en route to the trial. Mr. Thrush was likely under the influence of meth at the time that he, through his testimony, helped ensure the criminal conviction of Mr. Bachtell for the offense of methamphetamine possession.”

A new trial date was set for Nov. 19.