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Chad Isaak's suicide complicates appeal as North Dakota Supreme Court hears arguments

The central issue is whether Isaak's conviction for murdering four people at a Mandan business should be erased following his suicide at the State Penitentiary. Justices will rule later.

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Attorney Kiara Kraus-Parr presented oral arguments in the Chad Isaak case before the North Dakota Supreme Court on Thursday, Nov. 17, 2022 in Bismarck.
Tom Stromme/The Bismarck Tribune
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BISMARCK — Attorneys arguing the case of the late convicted quadruple murderer Chad Isaak disagreed Thursday on how the North Dakota Supreme Court should proceed with his appeal but agreed that the case could be breaking new ground in the state.

The central issue is whether Isaak's conviction for murdering four people at a Mandan business should be erased following his suicide at the State Penitentiary. Justices will rule later.

A jury in August 2021 convicted Isaak 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's attorney last June asked the Supreme Court to grant him a new trial, citing several reasons. Isaak hanged himself in his prison cell on July 31, before the high court ruled on his appeal.

Isaak's death brought questions about the status of his appeal and his conviction. Supreme Court justices in September asked Isaak attorney Kiara Kraus-Parr and Gabrielle Goter, who led the prosecution team in the criminal case as an assistant Morton County state’s attorney, for written arguments on whether the appeal was moot and whether the conviction should be abated, or set aside, which would have the same effect as if Isaak had never been charged.

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The common law doctrine of abatement ab initio -- from the beginning -- exists in North Dakota, and the Legislature has never stood against it, Kraus-Parr said during oral arguments on Thursday.

She said her argument was more about abatement or a wiping away of the entire case, which she said the Supreme Court has done in divorce and civil cases. In the appeal, she had asked the panel for a new trial based on evidentiary and procedural issues.

Justice Lisa Fair-McEvers on Thursday asked her, “How can you have a new trial without the defendant?”

Kraus-Parr responded that some states allow cases to proceed on the merits.

“If the merits are that the conviction is essentially overturned, then the case abates throughout,” she said. Similarly, “If (Isaak) was alive, won (the appeal) and his case got remanded and then (he) died pending that retrial, it would be the same situation. You wouldn’t proceed.”

Kraus-Parr said the state has no interest in the conviction being maintained. States that choose to continue appeals in such circumstances are trying to balance the interests of crime victims, the competing interests of defendant families and the state, she said.

She asked the panel to abate the case, or in the alternative allow the appeal to proceed on its merits.

Karlei Neufeld, one of the prosecutors at Isaak’s trial, told the justices Thursday that the appeal is moot and should be dismissed. The thresholds of mootness include a lapse of time or an event that took place before the court could make a decision, she said.

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Attorney Karlei Neufeld presented oral arguments in the Chad Isaak case before the North Dakota Supreme Court on Thursday, Nov. 17, 2022 in Bismarck.
Tom Stromme/The Bismarck Tribune

“In this case there certainly was an event,” Neufeld said, referring to Isaak’s suicide.

Justice Jon Jensen said victims under the state Constitution are entitled to a prompt and final conclusion of a case and any related post-judgment proceeding.

“It seems to me we have a Constitutional provision compelling us to proceed with this appeal,” he said.

Neufeld responded that “I don’t think we can get past the fact that the case is moot and none of the exceptions apply.”

Jensen said it seemed to be the state’s position that everyone was in favor of dropping the appeal and letting the conviction stand. He asked if it was possible that someone might want the confirmation of the Supreme Court that the conviction was valid.

Neufeld responded, “This is a new decision. It is a case of first impression in North Dakota and that certainly is something that should be considered by this court.” But she added later, “There is no way for us to avoid the otherwise mootness issue.”

Neufeld said that if justices didn't find the appeal moot, they should let Isaak’s conviction stand.

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