A Helena-area man announced Wednesday that he would plead guilty to negligent homicide in connection with a shooting death last year – an unexpected decision that came in the middle of his trial.
After about one and a half days of testimony, Gregg Trude’s attorney told District Court Judge Mike McMahon his client would change his plea.
“It is his decision that he would like me to inform the court that he intends to enter a plea of guilty to the negligent homicide charge that has been pending against him,” said Greg Jackson.
Trude was on trial in connection with the death of Dr. Eugene “Buzz” Walton, a Helena physician. Last October, the two men were at the former Kmart parking lot in Helena, after returning from a hunting trip. Walton was pulling his rifle out of the back of Trude’s truck, when Trude’s rifle went off. Walton was struck near the top of his thigh. First responders gave him medical assistance, but he did not survive.
Trude, who spent several years as a hunter education instructor, admitted Wednesday he had been negligent to put his gun into his truck with a live round in the chamber. He told McMahon he agreed that his actions had led to Walton’s death.
The change of plea came after the court’s afternoon break. Just before the break, McMahon had denied a defense motion to rule immediately in Trude’s favor. After prosecutors rested their case, Jackson had argued they had not provided enough evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Trude had been negligent and that his actions were directly responsible for Walton’s death.
“The evidence is clear that there is no suggestion, there is no allegation of a violation of any statute, of any rule, or any regulation,” he said.
But McMahon ruled there was enough evidence to move forward with the trial.
“I know one thing for certain, Mr. Jackson, based on the evidence: If that gun was not loaded and a live round in the chamber, we would not be here today,” he said.
Trude waived his right to a jury trial, so a “bench trial” was held instead. That meant that McMahon made the final decisions.
After Trude’s plea, the trial continued on a second charge – tampering with evidence. McMahon found him not guilty.
Prosecutors had argued that Trude had removed the empty cartridge from his rifle after Walton was shot, as a deliberate attempt to impede the investigation.
“He knew that removing that spent casing was significant to the investigation, and it was his purpose to prevent investigators from finding it,” said Lewis and Clark County Attorney Leo Gallagher.
But defense attorney Erin Inman said Trude had been fully cooperative with police. She said he did empty the gun after the shooting, but only because he was trying to make sure it was safe.
“That’s the only thing that makes sense,” she said.
McMahon said Trude’s actions seemed “illogical,” because his bolt-action rifle shouldn’t have been able to fire again until the cartridge was removed, but that he understood Trude was in a “state of shock” after the shooting.
“The court holds that the state failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that when he cleared that weapon, he did so with the purpose to impair its verity or availability in a proceeding or investigation,” he said.
McMahon said it was unlikely anyone would ever know what actually caused the gunshot that killed Walton. Though he did not end up ruling on the negligent homicide charge, he made a final comment on the shooting.
“That weapon, for God’s sake, should have been cleared, before it went back in that case,” he said.
McMahon set Trude’s sentencing for Oct. 16.
A person convicted of negligent homicide could face up to 20 years in prison and up to a $50,000 fine.
This story has been updated. Original post below:
In an unexpected turn, Gregg Trude pleaded guilty to one charge of negligent homicide on Wednesday.
It was the second day of the trial for the shooting death of Dr. Eugene "Buzz" Walton. This is a bench trial, meaning there is no jury, and Judge Mike McMahon was set to make the final decision.
Trude and Walton were returning from a hunting trip last October. When Walton was trying to pull his rifle out of Trude’s truck, Trude’s rifle went off.
Wednesday, Lewis and Clark County attorney Leo Gallagher argued Trude was negligent, because he left his gun with a round in the chamber while transporting it.
After the prosecution rested their case this morning , defense attorney Greg Jackson asked the judge to rule immediately in Trude’s favor.
He argued the state hadn’t proven any specific “standard of care” that Trude failed to meet.
But Judge Mike McMahon denied the motion, saying there was enough evidence to move forward with the trial.
The guilty plea comes after an afternoon recess. The trial continues for the second charge of Tampering with Evidence.
Trude previously ran for Montana House Dist. 75 where he was defeated in the June 2018 primary.
On his LinkedIn page he listed himself as an NRA rifle and handgun instructor and a member of the National Right to Life board of directors.