09/11/2018 - Man's crug conviction reversed: Expert wItness, himself was likely on meths while presenting evidence

The felony drug conviction of a man arrested in Great Falls for possessing meths was reversed when it was revealed that the chemist who testified to convict him was shockingly stealing methamphetamine from the Crime Lab of Montana State, and was likely under the influence of meths while presenting evidence in the courtroom.

"The court heard credible testimony indicating that Mr. Derrick Thrush, a forensic scientist for the State of Montana appropriated items of physical evidence, namely meths, from the custody of the Montana State Crime Lab," wrote District Court Judge John Parker in an order issued. "The evidence proved that Mr. Thrush, by his own admission, took meths while en route to the trial. He was likely under the influence of meths at the time that he, through his testimony, helped ensure the criminal conviction of Mr. Bachtell for the offense of methamphetamine possession."

James Donald Bachtell was arrested by Great Falls police on June 16, 2017, after officers found suspected meths residue in a glass pipe Bachtell was carrying in his pocket. According to court documents, forensic chemist Derrick Thrush was called to present expert testimony at Bachtell's trial on Feb. 12, 2018.

Bachtell was convicted of felony criminal possession of dangerous drugs the following day. Thrush's analysis and testimony as an expert witness was cited to provide conclusive evidence that the residue found in the glass pipe Bachtell was carrying on June 16 was methamphetamine.

According to a public defender's office filing, just two days after Bachtell's conviction Cascade County Attorney Josh Racki called Bachtell's lawyer, Vince van der Hagen, to tell him that Thrush "had ingested methamphetamine during his drive from Missoula to Great Falls on February 12th."

The Administrator of the Montana Department of Justice's Forensic Science Division issued a letter alerting various criminal law offices that an internal investigation had determined that one of their employees (Derrick Thrush) had "removed portions of drug evidence submitted to the lab for evidence."

The letter from Administrator Scott Larson said "the employee has been terminated from employment" and that the office was "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."

In his order, Parker found that Racki and the Cascade County Attorney's Office "were the first party to bring this troubling information to light" and "handled the matter ethically and appropriately."

"Neither counsel was on notice of this situation prior to the verdict," Parker wrote. "Therefore, the state could not disclose it to the defense."

On Aug. 14, 2018, Thrush pled guilty to three felony drug possession charges, as well as misdemeanors for theft and official misconduct. A report from the Missoulian newspaper states Thrush's brother-in-law alerted police to thefts from the crime lab, and that Thrush's wife found methamphetamine in their Missoula home in December 2017.

Defense filings state that on March 2, 2018, Racki told van der Hagen that Thrush had confided in a co-worker at the State Crime Lab "that he last ingested meth on the drive from Missoula to Great Falls on Feb.12th."

This is the second time a crime lab employee has pled guilty to stealing drugs from the state's forensic testing facility. In 2015 an evidence technician, Steven Brester, admitted to stealing opioids that were being stored as criminal evidence. Brester's conviction forced courts to drop charges against 69 drug case defendants across the state.

"In a nutshell, Mr. Thrush is a fraud," van der Hagen wrote in his motion for a new trial. "Defense Counsel believes Mr. Thrush committed perjury on the witness stand, at least to the extent that he testified he was following proper procedures. He clearly did not follow Crime Lab procedures when he ingested meth he handled at the Crime Lab and when he testified at trial after ingesting the meth."

In his order dismissing Bachtell's conviction, Parker found that Thrush had violated Bachtell's right to a fair trial.