Ex-prosecutor says friendship with murder case witness may have played a role in her firing
FARGO — A former prosecutor says she disclosed her friendship with a witness in a Fargo murder case before she was fired this month.
Her boss, Cass County State's Attorney Birch Burdick, is saying little about why the prosecutor, Leah Viste, was let go. Viste had more than two decades of experience, including prosecuting a high-profile case involving the killing of a pregnant woman whose baby was taken from her womb.
The state's attorney's office terminated Viste's employment on Aug. 4, according to a letter obtained by The Forum through a public records request. The letter does not say why Viste was fired.
Viste told The Forum Friday, Aug. 28, her friendship with a witness who could testify against Sheldon George Davis, 45, may have played a role in her firing. Davis , who is accused of killing 52-year-old Denise Anderson in his Fargo apartment before starting it on fire in August 2019, has claimed that Viste dated the witness.
However, Viste said she was acquainted with a witness in the case, but she did not date him. They have known each other since 2015, she added.
Viste said she told prosecutors in her office about the relationship and was not involved in prosecuting the Davis case. She noted that she didn't disclose the friendship to Burdick.
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"I did not hide anything from the assigned attorneys and did not have any involvement in discussions regarding the case," she said. "I did not review police reports and had no discussions about the case with my friend. I had very limited knowledge regarding the case, as the assigned attorneys and I created a barrier so that I did not have information regarding the case."
Cass County has recused itself from prosecuting Davis' case, citing a conflict of interest but not going into further detail. Grand Forks County prosecutor Carmell Mattison has taken over the case.
Davis is being held in Cass County Jail on $1 million bond. He's denied any involvement in Anderson's death.
Burdick declined The Forum's public records request seeking documents in Viste's personnel file that could shed more light on her firing. Records in personnel files are usually public, but Burdick said the documents requested “fit within the open records exemption for active criminal investigations, which include prosecutions."
“Accordingly, I am exercising that exemption and not providing the document(s) at this time,” Burdick said in an email, adding that he is unable to comment on his decision to fire Viste.
Viste graduated from the University of North Dakota's law school. She was admitted as an attorney by the State Bar Association of North Dakota in 1999.
She started working for the state’s attorney’s office in 2003. Most of her time was spent as a member of the personal crimes team, she said.
She prosecuted a number of murder cases, including a January trial that ended with the conviction of a mother who drowned her newborn son in May 2018 . She also prosecuted Ashley Hunter , who was found guilty by a jury in a 2015 double homicide.
Likely the most high-profile case she was involved in was the prosecution of Brooke Lynn Crews and Willliam Henry Hoehn in connection to the August 2017 death of Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind. Crews was accused of cutting a baby from LaFontaine-Greywind's womb, and prosecutors said Crews and Hoehn planned to raise the child together.
The infant survived, but LaFontaine-Greywind's body was found in the Red River more than a week after she went missing.
Crews is serving a life sentence after she pleaded guilty to conspiring to commit murder, kidnapping and providing false information to police. A jury acquitted Hoehn on the murder conspiracy charge, but he pleaded guilty to charges of kidnapping and lying to police. He was sent to prison for 20 years.
Asked whether she feels her termination was justified, Viste said she followed the practice of the office. She noted there is no formal policy in place addressing how to handle situations like hers, adding that she didn't violate any rule or statute.
She is still a licensed attorney and said she is considering her future options. At the moment, she doesn't plan to challenge her termination, though she said she feels her firing was unfortunate.
"I recognize that I am an at-will employee and can be terminated with or without cause at any time," she said.
She said she was honored to serve Cass County and stand up for victims.