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Damron blames attorney

More than seven years after Michael Damron brought Fargo's telecommunications to its knees, he claims his attorney didn't do enough to show his innocence.

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More than seven years after Michael Damron brought Fargo's telecommunications to its knees, he claims his attorney didn't do enough to show his innocence.

Tuesday, Damron testified at an evidentiary hearing in Cass County District Court for the remaining issue in his appeal for a trial.

The 39-year-old former Fargo man claims Bismarck attorney Irv Nodland provided ineffective counsel for his criminal case five years ago. Previously, East Central District Judge Norman Backes dismissed Damron's 15 other arguments asking for a trial.

In May 1997, Damron pleaded guilty to cutting U S West phone lines in five Fargo locations and to possessing stolen electronic equipment worth more than $10,000.

Damron agreed to the guilty plea days before his trial, which he claims Nodland wasn't ready to argue. He was given a 10-year prison sentence after reaching a plea deal, more than two years after disabling service to 20,000 phone customers, and ordered to pay $250,000 restitution to the phone company.

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Damron cut the phone lines in January 1995 to disable the alarms at Site on Sound, where more than $60,000 in equipment was missing. Much of it was found in Damron's north Fargo apartment. Damron fled Fargo and spent 21 months on the run. In November 1996, he was arrested in Iowa.

Mark Beauchene, attorney for Damron's appeal, asked his client why he accepted the plea bargain.

"I had no choice," Damron said. "He (Nodland) was always trying to get a plea bargain. He said he wasn't going to finance my case."

Damron claims he never wanted to enter a guilty plea because he had evidence showing his innocence. However, Damron said he felt pressured by his mother, J. Lee Berget, and Nodland to plead guilty.

"It was just all pushed on me so fast," said Damron.

During cross examination, Assistant Cass County State's Attorney Wade Webb pointed out Damron had prior criminal convictions.

Nodland, who provided testimony through a sworn deposition, contradicted Damron's claims.

Webb recounted Damron's admission of guilt during his 1997 plea hearing. "Why did you say all those things if you didn't mean them?" Webb asked.

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"That's what he (Nodland) told me to say," Damron said.

In Berget's testimony, she claims Nodland refused to listen to her despite providing evidence showing her son's innocence and failed to present important facts while representing him.

"He gave us hope at first," Berget said. "Then he planted the fear of losing at trial.

"There was no way he was prepared for trial. That weighed heavily in my decision to force Michael to plea."

Backes took the case under advisement and gave attorneys five days to submit legal arguments.

After the hearing, Damron stopped to talk to reporters.

"I'm not guilty," he said. "I want to go back to trial. It should happen. If the judge is honest, it will."

Webb said he's comfortable with the judge looking at the record for the case.

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"The burden is on the defendant to prove trial counsel was incompetent," Webb said. "The state feels confident they didn't come close to meeting their burden."

Readers can reach Forum reporter Steven P. Wagner at (701) 241-5542

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