Jury clears Holtz of 2013 negligent homicide following 5-day trial
Brendan Heidner
Thursday, January 30, 2020
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Yellowstone Newspapers photo by Jamie Crisafulli
            Michael Holts stands with his attorney during the trial last week in Glendive.

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Yellowstone Newspapers photo by Jamie Crisafulli
            Montana Assistant Attorney General Chad Parker gives his closing statements earlier this week.

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Yellowstone Newspapers photo by Jamie Crisafulli
            Defense attorney Vern Woodward speaks to the jury.

Two Stillwater County families now have an answer as a jury delivered a “not guilty” as verdict Tuesday in the Michael Holtz negligent homicide case.

Holtz was cleared of negligent homicide, failure to remain at the scene of an accident and tampering with or fabricating evidence in connection to the July 27, 2013, death of Forest Dana, who was hit and killed by a vehicle during Absarokee Days.

The 22nd Judicial District case was moved to Dawson County after Holtz’s defense team argued that the defendant would not get a fair trial in Stillwater County. District Judge Olivia Rieger presided over the trial.

Over the course of five days, a jury of 12 Dawson County residents heard evidence from the prosecuting attorneys — through witness, expert testimonies and photo/surveillance video evidence — that painted a picture of a booze filled night that ended in tragedy nearly seven years ago.

“The evidence shows that (Michael Holtz) is guilty,” said Montana Assistant Attorney General Chad Parker in his closing arguments Tuesday morning.

With the burden of proof weighing on the state of Montana, the defense worked to cast doubt on the state’s case in the jurors’ minds.

“In a little while, you are going to write the words ‘not guilty’,” defense attorney Vern Woodward said in his closing statement.

Dana’s death was determined by law enforcement to have occurred just before midnight, according to the testimony of law enforcement officials.

Many of the arguments given from both parties were based on the timeline between Holtz’s presence at the 5 Spot Bar to Dana’s death, and even some consideration of events proceeding that.

After tests run by law enforcement officials and experts, it was reported to take a person a minimum of five minutes — on a nice day with zero traffic or crowds of people milling the streets and following the laws of the road — to get from where Holtz was last seen on video to the scene of the accident. That path included him leaving the bar, having an argument with someone and then walking to his car, which was parked on a sidestreet.

Woodward claimed there was no possible way Holtz was ever at the scene of the accident if the time-lines are followed, saying Holtz would have only had anywhere from 30 seconds to three minutes to do so.

“I submit to you it is unreasonable to believe that, it’s impossible,” Woodward said.

Parker disputed that, explaining that the timelines are not as rigid as Woodward claimed due to approximations that were made after time stamps on surveillance footage were off and reconstructed along with the route taken from the bar to the scene of the accident.

“The defendant wants you to accept the argument that this time is set in stone,” Parker said. “That if Michael Holtz is out of the frame from the 5 Spot video at 11:49:27 on July 27, 2013, and his vehicle emerged from the alley at 11:53 p.m., then there is no way he could have been the driver of his vehicle at the time it ran over Forest Dana.”

“The evidence does not show beyond a reasonable doubt that Michael Holtz was the driver,” Woodward said.

Only one witness, Trenton Skaggs-Walker, testified that he saw Holtz get into his car and drive away after stopping behind the 5 Spot Bar, getting out and fighting with his ex-girlfriend. While Holtz and the ex-girlfriend did engage in other disputes throughout the night, no other witness, including the ex-girlfriend, made mention of the specific fight to which Skaggs-Walker testified.

Woodward to continued to cast doubt on the timelines and identity of the driver.

“Law enforcement has been investigating this case essentially for six and a half years,” Woodward said. “They interviewed hundreds of people (and) not one other person said that happened.”

As for the charge of tampering with or fabricating evidence, witness testimony put Holtz’s vehicle just out of Absarokee on Lover’s Lane where it was found against a tree.

The state brought forth evidence that suggested Holtz purposely ran into a tree after knowing an investigation into Dana’s death had ensued in an attempt to cover up the fact he had run Dana over.

“The elements of that charge do not require you to find that Michael Holtz was the driver of the vehicle, just that knowing an investigation was pending or about to be instituted that he altered, destroyed, concealed or removed a record document or thing,” Parker said.

Denying Parker’s statement, Woodward begged the question why someone who was not the driver of a vehicle involved in a hit and run accident would, with intention, damage their car.

In closing, both sides implored the jury.

“They are challenging you to look away from the evidence,” Parker said. “The evidence shows that (Michael Holtz) is guilty (so) return a verdict that says so.”

“There is no proof,” Woodward said. “There is simply suspicion.”

The jury was submitted all the evidence for deliberation and after five and a half hours in the jury room, they reached a verdict.