On Jan. 6, a longstanding nightmare for Cody Marble and his family ended with a single-page court order dismissing the rape charges brought against him in 2002.
"It's a big load off my shoulders," Marble says. "I lived with it for 15 years. It's not lifting all off of me as quickly as I'd hoped. It's going to take lot of readjusting to normal life."
In 2002, Marble was serving time in the juvenile wing of the Missoula County Detention Center for a parole violation related to marijuana misdemeanors when a 13-year-old fellow inmate accused Marble, then 17, of raping him in the showers. After a jury found Marble guilty, District Court Judge Douglas Harkin sentenced Marble to 20 years in prison, with 15 suspended, and labeled him a Tier III sex offender, the most restrictive status. Marble spent additional stints in jail for drug-related parole violations, but he's steadfastly maintained that he never sexually assaulted anyone, and he eventually enlisted the Montana Innocence Project to help him prove it. In 2009, Marble marked his first victory when a judge lowered his sex offender status to Tier I, the most lenient level.
Marble's accuser, Robert Thomas, recanted his story on four different occasions in front of Innocence Project staff, though he later re-asserted his original claim when former prosecutor Fred Van Valkenburg threatened him with perjury. Thomas died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in 2014.
In 2016, District Court Judge Ed McLean and Missoula County Attorney Kirsten Pabst agreed that Thomas' recantations and the lack of physical evidence cast doubt as to whether the sexual assault in question ever occurred. A December evidentiary hearing led to McLean's Jan. 3 decision vacating Marble's conviction and giving Pabst's office the option to try Marble's case again. Pabst chose to drop the charges.
Marble says he's grateful to Pabst, the Montana Innocence Project and especially to attorney Colin Stephens, who represented him pro bono for eight years.
"If it wasn't for the combination of right things happening at once, I don't think the world would've cared that I got wrongfully convicted," Marble says.
But now that the fight is over, Cody and his father, Jerry, are struggling to figure out what's next. The conviction has consumed their time and money for years. Jerry Marble filed for bankruptcy in 2005 after spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on attorneys and court fees. Jerry, now 62, says he mostly abandoned his career in real estate to devote time to Cody's case. Now he's not sure if he'll be able to find full-time work again.
"My god, the cost to Cody's life, the cost to me financially, and this didn't help my aging process at all," Jerry says.
Cody, 32, is now working at a gas station and living with his father in the small town of Conrad, north of Great Falls. He has few friends or other family members nearby, and says he'd prefer to move back to Missoula, where he grew up.
Jerry has been a tireless advocate for his son, but there are signs of strain in their relationship. Both say they don't often see each other. Asked about Jerry, Cody sighs and says he feels a little too old to be living with his dad. "But right now it's the way the situation is," Cody says.
Montana, like about half of U.S. states, offers no monetary compensation to residents who've been wrongfully incarcerated, so Cody is on his own financially. He's aware of the precedent set by Jimmy Ray Bromgard, a Billings man who settled with Yellowstone County for $3.5 million after a wrongful rape conviction. But Marble isn't ready to face the prospect of another legal battle. Instead, he'd like to first plan some travel and possibly pursue education. He's considered going to college to study criminal justice and maybe become a paralegal. He's already spent years poring over legal documents and has, on occasion, represented himself in court.
One thing Cody is sure about: He wants to get out of Conrad.
"If you're not a farmer, don't come up here," he says. "There's nothing but wind in the fields."