Judge Kaleb Cockrum dismissed an arson charge this morning against Ryan Anthony Tanner, who remains accused of kidnapping and murdering Jason Todd Garrett more than two years ago in the Ettersburg area.
Cockrum, responding to a defense motion, denied the request to dismiss all charges but agreed evidence of arson of an inhabited structure was “contradictory and largely circumstantial.”
The jury trial for Tanner, 34, is expected to begin Monday and last six to eight weeks. He allegedly shot the 33-year-old Garrett to death after forcing him into a bathtub in a remote cabin. Afterward the cabin burned to the ground.
During Tanner’s 13-day preliminary hearing, key prosecution witness Christopher Champagne said he witnessed the shooting and helped dig Garrett’s grave under a water tank on Tanner’s property. Champagne made conflicting statements about the cabin where the shooting occurred, saying both that it appeared to be lived-in but also that items in the house were moldy, as if they hadn’t been touched in a long time.
Defense attorney Russ Clanton filed the dismissal motion based on his contention that Champagne, whose preliminary hearing testimony was sometimes hallucinatory, is not a competent witness.
Champagne provided some testimony corroborated by others. But he also said the cabin where Garrett was killed had been transformed into a torture chamber, complete with a human hand stuck in a vise. And Champagne claimed Tanner murdered numerous law enforcement officers, piled up their bodies and set them on fire.
Champagne, the son of Tanner’s former girlfriend, also testified both Garrett and his dog were killed by a single shot. He remembered wrapping the dog’s body in a shower curtain. In fact, the dog was alive and well. Also, Champagne believed Tanner at one point slashed Garrett’s throat so brutally, his jugular vein was hanging out.
An investigator testified during the preliminary hearing the wound “was just a scratch.”
Judge Cockrum, in his written ruling, said the standard for witnesses is capability, not competence. Champagne “was capable of expressing himself and did so for the better part of five days” during the preliminary hearing, the judge stated.
This morning was scheduled for a trial-assignment hearing, and Cockrum announced the case would be assigned to Judge Gregory Elvine-Kreiss. Then Clanton made an oral motion to disqualify Elvine-Kreiss, so Cockrum assigned it to himself.
Attorneys will be back in court Monday morning for some pre-trial work, including going over questionnaires for potential jurors. Also, Cockrum will rule on a motion, filed by Deputy District Attorney Whitney Timm, to modify a special allegation against Tanner.
Timm said outside court the special allegation of using an assault rifle should be changed to simply “a rifle.”
Timm is the trial prosecutor, with assistance from Deputy District Attorney Jessica Acosta. This morning Cockrum appointed private attorney Zack Curtis to assist Clanton.
Tanner, who remains in custody, was arrested in Briceland by a SWAT team five days after he allegedly murdered Garrett. He has pleaded not guilty and not guilty by reason of insanity.
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