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Michael McDermott

Other Idaho Exonerations
On March 19, 2019, investigators in Bonner County, Idaho, found the body of 26-year-old Robert Hegseth Wohali in a shallow grave in a remote area south of the city of Sandpoint. He had been shot in the chest.

Wohali’s family had reported him missing several days earlier, and the police investigation had already led to a towing business on the north side of Sandpoint that doubled as a RV park. On March 16, as part of the investigation, Sandpoint police arrested 47-year-old Michael McDermott and charged him with providing false information after he was said to have identified himself as someone else. At the time, McDermott had an outstanding felony warrant on a grand theft charge, and he was placed in the Bonner County Jail.

Police had found Wohali’s body with the help of a woman named Alicia Flynn, who told detectives that McDermott had shot Wohali after an argument outside of her RV and that she helped him dispose of the body.

McDermott was indicted on charges of second-degree murder and failure to report a death on April 15, 2019.

McDermott gave three interviews to detectives with the Sandpoint Police Department regarding Wohali’s death. In the first two interviews, he denied any involvement in the shooting or even seeing Wohali on the night he went missing. During the third interview, McDermott said he shot Wohali in self-defense after Wohali came after him with a double-edged ax during the altercation outside Flynn’s RV at Evergreen Towing.

McDermott’s trial in Bonner County District Court began on September 30, 2019. By then, McDermott had pled guilty to providing false information to the police and received a sentence of 150 days in jail.

Flynn had dated McDermott and Wohali, and they were all part of what a local newspaper called “Bonner County’s underground methamphetamine scene.”

According to trial testimony, Wohali arrived at Flynn’s RV on the night of March 15. They partied and then went to bed. McDermott began texting Flynn around 10 p.m., offering to trade her cleaning supplies to use on her RV, which she wanted to sell, in exchange for drugs. McDermott showed up at the RV around 3 a.m. and knocked on the door. Flynn came out, alone, and she and McDermott went looking for drugs. They didn’t find any and returned to the RV. McDermott became aware that Flynn had somebody inside. She wouldn’t tell him who.

McDermott opened the RV door and asked who was there. Wohali answered. Flynn tried to go inside, but McDermott slammed her head against the door. McDermott was still outside when Wohali came out of the trailer with the ax. McDermott then fired.

A medical examiner testified that Wohali was shot on the left side of his chest, through the heart.

Flynn testified that she saw Wohali with the ax over his shoulder as he and McDermott argued. She said she performed cardio-pulmonary resuscitation on Wohali and then went to another trailer on the property to ask the person inside to call 911. (That person testified that Flynn returned a short while later and said not to call.)

Flynn said that she and McDermott placed Wohali’s body in the cab of McDermott’s truck, and that she believed they were going to take him to the emergency room. That didn’t happen. “When we crossed the Long Bridge, I knew we weren’t going to the hospital,” she said, referring to the two-mile bridge leading south out of Sandpoint across Lake Pend Oreille.

McDermott testified that he shot Wohali in self-defense. “Once I heard the door open I turned around. I told Rob I had a gun. He picked the ax up and I started backing up, and I started going for my gun.”

McDermott testified that although he never asked Flynn’s neighbor not to call the police, he didn’t plan on calling them either.

McDermott’s attorney, public defender Janet Whitney, had sought to bar jurors from hearing McDermott’s interviews, in which he initially told the police he wasn’t at the trailer, but Judge Barbara Buchanan allowed this evidence. In his testimony, McDermott said he initially lied out of fear, shock, and self-preservation.

Prosecutors also introduced text messages that McDermott sent to Flynn in the days before the shooting. In the messages, McDermott said he was angry with Flynn for being unfaithful to him while they were dating. He also asked her who she was sleeping with.

In closing arguments, the state said that McDermott shot Wohali in a jealous rage after learning that he was with Flynn. There was no self-defense, a prosecutor said.

Prior to the jury’s deliberations, the state and defense argued over the instructions to give the jury on what constituted an “initial aggressor,” and what actions that person would have to take to justifiably claim self-defense. Judge Buchanan drafted a jury instruction that said: “A person is not entitled to claim self-defense when he or she was the aggressor or the one who provoked the altercation in which another person is killed unless such person in good faith first withdraws from further aggressive action.”

Whitney objected to the instruction, saying there was no evidence that McDermott had raised a “threat or specter of deadly force” against Wohali. Judge Buchanan overruled Whitney.

During deliberations, the jury asked for a definition of malice. Whitney objected, saying jurors had received adequate instruction. Judge Buchanan said she “would like to give the jury something,” and read a jury instruction that said, “Malice is the intentional doing of a wrongful act without legal cause or excuse.”

The jury convicted McDermott on both charges on October 4, 2019. He was sentenced to between 10 and 25 years in prison. Prior to sentencing, Judge Buchanan dismissed the notification conviction, ruling that a recent decision by the Idaho Supreme Court had declared the notification law unconstitutional in instances where it violated a defendant’s right against self-incrimination.

McDermott appealed his murder conviction, arguing that Judge Buchanan erred in the definition of malice that she gave the jury. On March 1, 2022, the Idaho Supreme Court granted McDermott a new trial. The court said that the instruction incorrectly defined malice as an action, rather than a thought, and reduced the state’s burden of proof.

McDermott was released from prison on April 20, 2022.

Prior to his retrial, McDermott’s new attorney, Sean Walsh, moved to introduce evidence “regarding specific instances of violence committed by Robert Hegseth Wohali known by Michael McDermott for the limited purpose of proving Michael McDermott’s state of mind: specifically, that Michael McDermott’s fear of the imminent danger of great bodily harm of death from Robert Wohali was in fact reasonable.” Judge Buchanan had excluded this evidence at the first trial.

At an evidentiary hearing on September 20, 2022, McDermott testified about eight incidents of allegedly violent behavior by Wohali that he had either witnessed or heard about. Judge Buchanan ruled on October 28, 2022, that Walsh could present evidence on four of the incidents. In these cases, McDermott was either a witness or there were court records or photographs documenting the alleged violent behavior.

Walsh presented this evidence at McDermott’s second trial. A jury acquitted McDermott of second-degree murder on August 4, 2023.

“While Mr. McDermott acted in self-defense and was therefore not guilty, that does not alleviate the pain felt by the [Wohali] family at the loss of their loved one,” Walsh said.

– Ken Otterbourg

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Posting Date: 9/5/2023
Last Updated: 9/5/2023
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:2019
Sentence:10 to 25 years
Age at the date of reported crime:47
Contributing Factors:
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No