Gregory County murder trial postponed as prosecutors seek Supreme Court opinion
BURKE -- A Gregory County murder trial has been postponed as prosecutors seek the opinion of the South Dakota Supreme Court in hopes that the defendant's three wives will be allowed to testify.
BURKE - A Gregory County murder trial has been postponed as prosecutors seek the opinion of the South Dakota Supreme Court in hopes that the defendant's three wives will be allowed to testify.
In the case of the state of South Dakota v. Russell Bertram, the state, represented by Assistant Attorney General Paul Swedlund, petitioned the S.D. Supreme Court to appeal a circuit court decision, which said the testimonies of Bertram's wives were "unfairly prejudicial."
Bertram, a 64-year-old former Harrisburg police chief and Sioux Falls resident, is charged with murder in the shooting death of his fiancee, Leonila Stickney, 26, in October 2009, which was initially ruled a hunting accident. Bertram grew up in Colome and served as a police officer there from November 1988 to August 1991.
On Jan. 28, Judge Kathleen Trandahl presided over an evidentiary hearing at the Tripp County Courthouse in Winner, where Swedlund and defense attorneys Clint Sargent and Michael Butler discussed several pieces of evidence, including Bertram's financial situation, statements made by Bertram to a South Dakota Division of Criminal Investigation agent and the testimony of Bertram's three ex-wives, Nancy Gruhlke, Bev Bertram and Gwendolyn Peterson.
Swedlund said the state intended to use the women's testimonies to reveal Bertram's history of jealousy and abuse, which could serve as a motive.
"We're not saying Mr. Bertram is a serial killer or that he kills for the joy of killing. We're saying he had motive to kill and a propensity of violence in past relationships that translates all the way up (until Leonila's death)," Swedlund said at the hearing.
The testimonies highlight moments when Bertram was acting possessively and his suspicions of infidelity led him to turn to violence, Swedlund said, like one incident when he allegedly threw a butcher knife after his then-wife talked about divorce.
Swedlund argued that infidelity could have been Bertram's motive for killing Stickney, as Stickney was pregnant with another man's child at the time of her death.
The defense said the state was using these testimonies to show Bertram was a bad person, and although his former wives filed for protection orders, which were denied, there is no history of violence between Bertram and Stickney.
"There is not sufficient similarity between those relationships and the decedent," Trandahl said during the hearing. "In this case, there is no evidence of domestic violence between the decedent and defendant."
The Supreme Court will review the state's petition and counterpoints from the defense and determine whether the justices will hear a full appeal. If the petition is denied, the case goes back to the circuit court, and a trial will be rescheduled.
"I wouldn't hazard a guess as to what the Supreme Court will do. It's one of those things, sometimes. You'll know it when they tell you, and that's how you know," Butler said.
The trial was scheduled to run from Feb. 22 to March 4. A new trial date has not been set.