For nearly seven years, Dale Hanson has been on the run. The once avid outdoorsman who's spent most of his life in the Flathead Valley stays inside much of the time. He's worried that if he goes out, even to the grocery store, law enforcement will find him and send him back to Montana State Prison, where he's already served 10 years for a crime he insists he didn't commit.
"I'm always, constantly, looking over my shoulder," Hanson says.
Hanson, 62, is hiding because he refuses to register as a sex offender, a condition of a 1995 sexual assault conviction handed down by the Flathead County District Court.
Hanson's refusal to admit wrongdoing has made an already difficult situation even tougher. While in prison, for instance, Hanson would not attend the sex offender treatment program required to qualify for parole, prompting corrections officials to keep him incarcerated for the entire 10-year sentence. In 2005, when Hanson was released from prison, the Anaconda-Deer Lodge County Sheriff was waiting for him at MSP's reception unit, aiming to register him as a sex offender. Again, Hanson refused. That stance garnered him another 11 months in the county jail.
For Hanson, the issue boils down to principle. "I am not a criminal," he says.
For the past 20 years Hanson has told anyone who will listen that he did not sexually abuse his ex-girlfriend's 5-year-old son.
By all accounts, Hanson's relationship with his ex, referred to as Emily G. in court documents, was tumultuous. The couple dated and lived together in the early 1990s. During that time, Hanson says Emily G. became increasingly jealous.
Unwilling to stomach her temper, Hanson ended the relationship in 1992. According to court documents filed on Hanson's behalf, Emily G. then vowed to make "Hanson's life a living hell." Nearly two years after the relationship ended, Emily G. reported to law enforcement that Hanson had molested her son.
When Emily G. came forward, Hanson was in his 40s, working as a carpenter and, aside from a charge of driving under the influence, had a clean criminal record.
In 1995, Hanson pleaded not guilty to sexual assault and deviant sexual conduct. The jury heard Emily G. and her son, called A.G. in court documents, testify that Hanson forced A.G. to perform oral sex on him. Hanson was the only person to testify on his behalf.
Hanson says that he told his attorney about answering machine messages that he had kept that captured Emily G. threatening to "fucking get even" with him after the breakup. But those recordings were never submitted during Hanson's trial.
Once incarcerated, Hanson appealed the guilty verdict to the Montana Supreme Court and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. In 2006, Ninth Circuit Judge Betty Fletcher emboldened Hanson's claims when she opined that if the jury had heard the recordings of Emily G., as she had, it might have rendered a different verdict.
"The tapes, had they been placed into evidence, could have influenced the jury's decision regarding Hanson's guilt," Fletcher wrote. "Hanson's trial counsel never sought to introduce the messages; under the circumstances, that failure may have constituted ineffective assistance of counsel."
Despite those findings, Fletcher stated that the Ninth Circuit could not intervene. "This appeal illustrates the consequences—often tragic—that result from procedural failures, as cases proceed from trial to appeal to post-conviction proceedings," she wrote.
In 2011, Hanson secured another small victory when University of Montana School of Law professor Jeffrey Renz agreed to help him with his attempts to overturn the conviction. The Montana Innocence Project is also providing Hanson legal services. Renz cited pending litigation when declining to comment for this story.
Hanson's attorneys say in briefs submitted to the Flathead County District Court this year that Hanson's trial was botched even beyond his trial counsel's failure to submit the audio recordings. Specifically, Renz accuses Flathead County Sheriff Detective Maxine Lamb, who investigated Hanson's case, of engaging in "extreme misconduct" when telling potential character witnesses, including a neighbor with two young sons who believed Hanson innocent, that they couldn't attend Hanson's trial.
Renz also claims that when the owner of the Whitefish trailer park Hanson and Emily G. lived in told Lamb that Emily G. engaged in "bizarre behavior," had a "reputation for dishonesty" and a "habit of trying to get others who angered her in trouble ... Lamb did not want to hear any of this."
Lamb died in 2007. Flathead County Attorney Ed Corrigan now oversees the office that prosecuted Hanson. Corrigan says that despite claims raised by Hanson's legal team this year, he remains convinced of Hanson's guilt. "I will say that I have no reason to doubt the jury's verdict in this matter," he says.
Corrigan acknowledges that Hanson's attorney didn't introduce audiotapes of Emily G.'s threats, but says the threats were discussed during Hanson's trial. Hanson disputes that account.
"The jury heard that testimony," Corrigan says. "But more importantly, they heard the little boy testify—and (they) obviously conclude(d) that his testimony was more credible than Hanson's."
This summer, Corrigan's office offered Hanson a deal. In exchange for dropping his petition for post-conviction relief, the county would waive the sex offender registration requirement. Hanson says that because the criminal conviction would have remained on his record, he refused the deal.
It remains to be seen how the court will handle Hanson's current petition to have the conviction overturned. In the meantime, next March will mark the 20th anniversary of Hanson's arrest. After losing two decades, time that Hanson says should have been spent working and saving for retirement, he's angry about the past and worried about the future.
"I've had 20 years of my life destroyed and stolen from me for something I didn't even do," he says. "There's no redoes in this lifetime...That's one-third of my life that they've taken from me."