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Attorneys argue whether Isaak conviction should be set aside after suicide

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Chad Isaak, of Washburn, sits with his defense team during the third day of his murder trial at the Morton County Courthouse in Mandan. Isaak was on trial in the killings of four people at RJR Maintenance and Management in Mandan on April 1, 2019. At left are defense attorneys Bruce Quick and Jesse Walstad.

Attorneys arguing the merits of convicted quadruple murderer Chad Isaak's appeal after he died by suicide a month after seeking a new trial disagree on whether the North Dakota Supreme Court can or should wipe away the verdicts.

The attorney for Isaak in June asked the North Dakota Supreme Court to grant him a new trial, citing several reasons. A jury in August 2021 convicted him on four counts of murder and other charges in the April 1, 2019, deaths of RJR Maintenance and Management 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 State Penitentiary after his conviction.

Isaak hanged himself in his prison cell on July 31. His death brought questions about the status of his appeal and his conviction. The state Supreme Court asked Isaak attorney Kiara Kraus-Parr and Assistant Morton County State’s Attorney Gabrielle Goter, who prosecuted the criminal case, for written arguments on whether the appeal was moot and if the conviction should be abated, which has the same effect as if Isaak had never been charged.

There is “no statutory authority” that would allow the Supreme Court to erase Isaak’s conviction, Goter said in a written argument filed Tuesday. Isaak victimized “countless family members, friends and co-workers,” and in taking his own life revictimized them by forcing them “to relive one of the darkest days of their lives,” Goter said.

Though the jury’s verdict “did not provide complete closure or make the survivors whole,” any “sense of peace and closure would be ripped away” by an abatement, Goter said.

The trial convictions helped reduce some of the lost business and negative publicity that had struck RJR professionally and financially, the prosecutor said.

“That would also be taken away” by an abatement, she said.

Kraus-Parr argued that the common law doctrine of abatement ab initio -- from the beginning -- has been discussed and applied in North Dakota, and that other courts have agreed that the doctrine should apply in direct appeals. Isaak’s conviction and all previous prosecutive proceedings should be dismissed under that precedent “because a judgment is not final until the appeal has been decided or the time for requesting review has run,” she said.

If the justices were to overturn the previous common law doctrine, Kraus-Parr said, the appeal should proceed “as the issues to the court are not merely factual disputes but important legal issues of a constitutional dimension that should be resolved” because they have statewide impact and could reoccur.

Kraus-Parr in a document submitted to the Supreme Court on June 30 said Isaak’s judgment should be reversed for several reasons, including alleged errors during jury selection and violations of his 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.

Goter argued that Isaak’s appeal is moot because it sought a new trial, a remedy she said “is no longer available.”

“No person can stand in the stead of, or substitute for, a criminal defendant,” she said.

Goter also argued that the issues raised in Isaak’s appeal are specific to him and don’t affect the community or the state.

“Although there could be a criminal case where similar rulings are made regarding trial exhibits, jury selection, or bench conferences, this court does not render a purely advisory opinion merely because the issue may arise in the future,” she said.

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

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