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Justices uphold murder conviction

BISMARCK -- North Dakota's Supreme Court has affirmed the murder conviction of a man who beat his girlfriend to death, dumped her body in a roadside ditch and set it afire, ruling that evidence used to convict him was properly obtained.

BISMARCK -- North Dakota's Supreme Court has affirmed the murder conviction of a man who beat his girlfriend to death, dumped her body in a roadside ditch and set it afire, ruling that evidence used to convict him was properly obtained.

Steve Torkelsen, Cando, N.D., had argued that police searches of his pickup and camper and an early-morning search of his parents' home were illegal, and that the evidence authorities found should not be used against him.

Authorities were looking for clues that Torkelsen killed Rebecca Flaa, a companion of Torkelsen's, whose body was found smoldering in a Towner County roadside ditch in June 2004. She had been struck repeatedly on the head.

Searches

The searches of his pickup and camper came after he was improperly detained by police, and the circumstances did not justify searching his elderly parents' property at 3 a.m., Torkelsen contended.

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The Supreme Court's ruling, written by Justice Daniel Crothers, said Torkelsen consented to the searches and voluntarily provided a saliva sample. The night-time search of Torkelsen's parents' residence was justified because of police concerns that they would attempt to hide evidence of the crime to aid their son, Crothers wrote.

Earlier, authorities had pulled over Torkelsen's truck about 28 miles west of Cando to question him about Flaa's killing. That stop was not justified, the Supreme Court's ruling says, but Torkelsen subsequently agreed to be interviewed about the crime and to allow searches of his camper and pickup.

"We conclude Torkelsen's voluntary consent was an independent cause of the discovery of the challenged evidence, and purged the taint of the illegal stop," Crothers wrote.

Conviction

A jury convicted Torkelsen of murder in May 2007. He is serving a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Torkelsen first pleaded guilty to Flaa's murder in June 2006. But the Supreme Court threw out the plea, ruling that authorities did not have sufficient reason to stop Torkelsen's truck shortly after Flaa's body was discovered.

Torkelsen also argued that he was denied the right to act as his own attorney during his trial, but the Supreme Court agreed Torkelsen never explicitly asked to represent himself.

On the fifth day of his trial, Torkelsen complained that one of his defense lawyers, Thomas Merrick, was not asking the questions Torkelsen wanted him to ask, a partial transcript of the proceedings shows.

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Torkelsen asked Northeast District Judge Lee Christofferson to grant Merrick's previous request to withdraw as Torkelsen's lawyer, but the judge declined.

"Torkelsen disgreed with how his attorney was questioning certain witnesses and his attorney's trial strategy," the Supreme Court's ruling says. "Torkelsen's request was an impulsive, emotional response to his frustration with his attorney, rather than a clear and unequivocal invocation of the right to self-representation."

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