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Arguments in Chad Isaak appeal to include whether conviction could be set aside

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Chad Isaak during his quadruple murder trial in the Morton County Courthouse in August 2021.

The North Dakota Supreme Court on Tuesday asked attorneys to weigh in on whether the appeal of quadruple murderer Chad Isaak is moot following his recent suicide and whether his death might mean that his conviction could be set aside.

Isaak's attorney filed the appeal on June 30. Isaak, 48, was declared dead at a Bismarck hospital about a month later, on July 31. Authorities that day responded to a call of inmate self-harm at the North Dakota State Penitentiary, where Isaak had been since being sentenced in December to life in prison without parole for the April 2019 slayings of four people at RJR Maintenance and Management.

His death occurred about the time the prosecution's response to his appeal was originally due, and it left questions about whether his appeal can, should or will proceed, and who makes that call. Supreme Court justices on Tuesday discussed the matter, and later referenced a rule in criminal law that could negate a conviction if the defendant dies before he or she can exhaust all appeals.

A jury in August 2021 convicted Isaak on four counts of murder and other charges in the April 1, 2019, deaths of RJR co-owner Robert Fakler, 52; and employees Adam Fuehrer, 42; and married couple Bill Cobb, 50, and Lois Cobb, 45.

Three of the victims were shot, and among the four they suffered more than 100 stab wounds, according to trial testimony. No motive was ever established.

South Central District Judge David Reich in December 2021 sentenced Isaak to four consecutive life sentences. Isaak had been behind bars since his arrest and was moved to the penitentiary after his conviction. Prison officials said Isaak’s roommate was not in the cell at the time of his suicide.

Kiara Kraus-Parr, the attorney in Isaak’s appeal, in a document submitted to the North Dakota Supreme Court on June 30 said Isaak’s judgment should be reversed because of errors during jury selection and violations of Isaak’s right to a public trial. No record was made of certain conferences involving the judge and attorneys held before and during the trial, Kraus-Parr said. She further argued that public access to court documents and autopsy photos was improperly closed, and that jurors were dismissed outside Isaak's presence.

Kraus-Parr did not respond to multiple Tribune phone calls and emails in the past week.

A response by prosecutors is due 30 days after an appeal is filed -- in Isaak's case, on July 30, the day before his death. Assistant Morton County State’s Attorney Gabrielle Goter before the deadline was granted an extra 60 days to review additional items for her response. She said she still plans to file it.

The Supreme Court on Tuesday posted on its website that attorney arguments on "whether the appeal is moot and whether or not the case abates" are due Aug. 30.

"It could set aside the verdict," Goter told the Tribune, adding that the justices "also asked us to address the effect on the victims’ families when looking at whether the appeal is moot and whether the case should abate." 

Attorneys as they do research for their arguments will weigh victims' rights, the issue of suicide or of a defendant acting to take his own life mid-appeal, Goter said.

If the appeal would move forward and be successful, the case would be dismissed, according to the prosecutor. It couldn't go back to trial because a person can't be tried after death, she said.

"That significantly impacts victim rights," Goter said. "If the case abates, it's a similar result and effect on victims' rights."

Tim Purdon, a former federal prosecutor, said when a criminal defendant dies in the course of prosecution “the general rule is that ends the criminal case.”

“With no criminal defendant there’s no case,” he said.

Joe Tamburino, a Minneapolis criminal defense attorney and legal analyst, said it appears the justices "are looking to explore two issues that could go either way with the right arguments." Mootness would mean that finishing the appeal is pointless since there is no dispute to be resolved.

"They may be looking for perspective on “complete abatement” -- overturning all prior convictions and indictments -- or “partial abatement” -- upholding prior convictions and dismissing appeals," Tamburino said. "The historical practice in North Dakota has been to dismiss appeals ... and uphold lower court convictions."

Details of Isaak's death have not been released pending the Patrol’s investigation.

Reach Travis Svihovec at 701-250-8260 or Travis.Svihovec@bismarcktribune.com

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