Despite not guilty verdict, prosecution stands by charging decision in Savanna’s killing
FARGO — A not guilty verdict in the high-profile murder conspiracy trial of William Hoehn might lead some to wonder whether the charge he faced was the appropriate one.
But such second-guessing does not extend to the Cass County State's Attorney's Office, which stands by its original decision.
"We believe we properly charged him," said Leah Viste, one of the attorneys who prosecuted the case.
Viste said Hoehn was charged with conspiracy to commit murder because his behavior following the killing of Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind — including helping cover up the crime, moving the body and lying to police — supported the prosecution's theory that a conspiracy existed prior to her death.
Other charges that could have been brought against Hoehn, such as aiding in the consummation of a crime, or accomplice after the crime, were rejected because they would have conflicted with the prosecution's position that a conspiracy started before LaFontaine-Greywind's death, Viste said.
On Sept. 28, following a nine-day trial, a 12-person jury acquitted Hoehn on the charge of conspiring to murder LaFontaine-Greywind, who was 22 and pregnant when she died in August 2017.
Following LaFontaine-Greywind's disappearance on Aug. 19, 2017, Hoehn and Brooke Crews, his co-defendant and ex-girlfriend, were each charged with conspiring to commit murder, with prosecutors asserting the aim of the plan was to cut LaFontaine-Greywind's baby from her womb and raise the child as their own.
LaFontaine-Greywind's body was found in the Red River on Aug. 27, 2017, eight days after she vanished from her north Fargo apartment building and three days after her healthy baby was found in Crews' possession.
In December, Crews pleaded guilty to charges of conspiracy to commit murder, conspiracy to commit kidnapping and lying to police.
While Hoehn was acquitted of conspiracy to commit murder, he pleaded guilty to a felony charge of conspiring to commit kidnapping and a misdemeanor charge of lying to law enforcement. He is awaiting sentencing on those charges.
The maximum prison sentence on the conspiracy to commit kidnapping charge is 20 years. The misdemeanor charge carries a maximum penalty of 360 days in jail.
Prosecution: cover-up, lying pointed to conspiracy
During Hoehn's trial, the prosecution tried to convey the concept of conspiracy to the jury.
In its simplest form, it is an agreement between two people to achieve an objective and at least one of the conspirators takes a step to fulfill that objective.
Prosecutors said the agreement need not be explicit but only implied.
Dan Borgen, Hoehn's attorney, maintained there was never an agreement between Hoehn and Crews, expressed or implied, prior to LaFontaine-Greywind's death.
Crews, the prosecution's prime witness, testified that she felt pressured by Hoehn to produce a baby, but she said there was never an explicit plan between them to kill LaFontaine-Greywind and cut her baby from her womb.
Other issues making things difficult for the prosecution: a medical examiner could not establish a specific time of death, or a specific cause of death.
Those factors were important in the prosecution's effort to link the timing of LaFontaine-Greywind's death to when Hoehn returned home from work the afternoon of Aug. 19, 2017, the day the victim went missing.
Hoehn and Crews' testimony differed as to what happened that day.
Crews testified Hoehn came into their apartment bathroom, uttered an expletive and asked if LaFontaine-Greywind, who was lying on the floor, was dead.
Crews said she told him, "I don't know. Please help me." At which point, she said Hoehn left and returned with a rope, tied it around LaFontaine-Greywind's neck and said, "If she wasn't dead before, she is now."
Hoehn testified he believed LaFontaine-Greywind was already dead when he entered the bathroom and that he never saw the rope around her neck until he walked into the bathroom.
Another charge Hoehn could have faced was willful disturbance of a dead body, something he admitted to during his testimony.
Viste said that charge is a misdemeanor that carries a maximum penalty of one year behind bars.
It's unlikely other charges will be brought against Hoehn, according to Viste. "I wouldn't anticipate, at this point, any additional charges stemming from what we have," she said.
Asked about his thoughts on the Hoehn case and how it was charged, Cass County State's Attorney Birch Burdick deferred questions to Viste.
Hoehn will be sentenced for conspiracy to commit kidnapping and lying to police once a pre-sentencing investigation is complete.
Viste said any information regarding the kidnapping of LaFontaine-Greywind's baby that Hoehn testified to during his trial on the conspiracy to commit murder charge will be a factor when he is sentenced.