Montana doctor compromises Hirth’s case, putting his trial on hold

 Richard Hirth adds to plea
Richard Hirth adds to plea (KEVN)
Published: Sep. 22, 2023 at 7:59 PM CDT
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RAPID CITY, S.D. (KEVN) -The trial for the final suspect in a 2015 murder-for-hire case was suspended, after four days of jury selection.

42-year-old Richard Hirth is accused of fatally stabbing Jessica Rehfeld, after being hired by Rehfeld’s ex-boyfriend Jonathan Klinetobe, Who is currently serving a sentence of life in prison without parole.

In a statement released on Thursday by Pennington County State’s Attorney Lara Roetzel, she said “the cancellation of the trial has not only left the prosecution deeply upset but also left the victim’s family with a sense of injustice.”

In a statement on Friday, she pointed out that this trial has been going on for a long time, making it hard for Rehfeld’s family to get closure.

“So you have to understand that this has been going on for 7 years, and that Jessica actually went missing 8 years ago. This family has been through hell. This court case has been so long, and so complicated, they were completely devastated to learn that this is going to be another significant delay in the case, it’s hard for them to understand how any of this can be happening. We explained the situation to them the best we can. We were very lucky in that we’ve built great relationships with them, and they remain supportive of the prosecution. We remain firm in our quest to seek justice for Jessica Rehfeld,” continued Roetzel.

The suspension is due to an expert witness for the defense, no longer willing to testify. This comes after the defense tried but failed to exclude evidence that Dr. William Stratford had entered into an agreement with the federal government, following an investigation that alleges he violated the controlled substances act.

“Defense counsel filed a motion to prevent the state from asking their defense expert questions about a federal civil lawsuit he was involved in, that involved the DEA’s record keeping act, ketamine and also self-prescription of the drug Xanax that the expert was prescribing himself. Judge had ruled Monday morning that the state could ask the expert questions about the civil settlement agreement for purposes of impeachment.”

Seventh Circuit Court Judge Heidi Linngren ruled that the state would be allowed to question Stratford about the investigation.

“That was ruled on Monday morning. Thursday morning the defense expert indicated through the defense attorneys, to the court that he would not answer questions about the civil settlement agreement, that he would be pleading the fifth, asserting his fifth amendment right to remain silent. The defense attorneys were upset about that, and did not feel that their expert could be considered fairly by the jurors, given that he would not answer questions fully on cross examination. As the afternoon progressed the situation became that the expert was refusing to come and testify at all,” said Roetzel.

Judge Linngren ruled Thursday afternoon that Hirth would not get a fair trial in court, and the trial was then suspended.

Hirth is the last of four suspects to be tried in court, and as Roetzel explains, multiple factors have come into play while perusing Hirth’s case that have extended his time in court.

“It’s been complicated by years of Supreme Court appeals, the fact that there was a period of time that Richard Hirth was found to be incompetent by the court to proceed. Then also years of psychiatric evaluations have led to the defense expert finding him to be insane and the states expert finding him to be sane,” said Roetzel.

The defense has also said they are upset about this continuation, going on to say it was out of all parties’ control.

“We, like all involved and impacted, are tremendously disappointed that this trial had to be continued. Everyone involved deserves finality. The eve of trial development was out of all parties’ control and the net result would have been an unfair trial. Like the states attorney’s office, we would also like to express our gratitude to the jurors who participated in jury selection,” defense attorney Robert Rohl released in a statement.

Roetzel said they are very disappointed the defense did not notify the court of Stratford’s legal issues sooner.

“From the states perspective, we’re very disappointed that the defense attorneys did not figure all of this out sooner. I mean, obviously Dr. Stratford has been under investigation for months and years prior to this, and the civil court filing happened months prior to this. The agreement that Dr. Stratford reached with the federal government happened at the end of August. There’s just no way that we should’ve been hearing about this, and his refusal to testify on the fourth day of our trial. So the state is very disappointed in the way defense council handled this, and especially the way that their defense expert, who the court has found is no longer a credible expert, Dr. Stratford has handled this. You have to refer to the civil settlement agreement to understand the terms that the federal government reached with Dr. Stratford,” said Roetzel.

The defense now has six months to find another psychiatrist to evaluate Hirth’s mental sanity. If he is found insane by the new expert, the case will be reset for trial, if found sane, Hirth has the option of requesting a trial on the option of guilt only, instead of guilty but mentally ill.