Former Montana State player pleads guilty to role in murder

Updated: January 4, 2008, 6:35 PM ET
Associated Press

HELENA, Mont. -- Former Montana State basketball player Branden Miller pleaded guilty Friday for his role in the shooting death of a cocaine dealer in a case that stunned the community and led the school to re-evaluate its athletics recruiting policies.

The 23-year-old Miller pleaded guilty in District Court in Bozeman to murder and tampering with evidence in connection with the June 2006 death of Jason Wright, whose body was found in an MSU agricultural field.

"Branden wanted to take responsibility for his involvement in the death of Jason Wright, but the fact remains that he did not shoot Jason Wright," Miller's attorney, public defender Peter Ohman, said Friday.

He said his client apologized to Wright's family and "hopes that they will at some time in the future perhaps be able to forgive him."

Miller also pleaded guilty to assault with a weapon in a pistol-whipping at a downtown Bozeman bar two weeks before Wright was killed. A kidnapping charge in the Wright case was dismissed along with other charges in the bar fight.

District Judge Mike Salvagni scheduled Miller's sentencing for May 5. Under the plea agreement, prosecutors are recommending consecutive sentences totaling 130 years in prison, including 100 years for the murder. Miller's defense will also be allowed to make a sentencing recommendation and will ask for an opportunity for parole, Ohman said.

If Salvagni agrees to the state's sentencing recommendation, Miller would be eligible for parole in 31 years, Gallatin County Attorney Marty Lambert said.

Also charged in the Wright case is John Lebrum, a former MSU redshirt football player. His trial is scheduled for April.

During Friday's hearing, Miller said he and Lebrum followed Wright from a restaurant to his house so they could rob him. Miller said Lebrum threatened Wright with a gun and then hit him over the head.

Miller said he drove Lebrum and Wright in Wright's sport utility vehicle. He said Wright escaped from the vehicle twice. The first time, Wright was returned to the vehicle. The second time, Miller said Lebrum chased Wright and then he heard gunshots. Miller said Lebrum gave him $40 from Wright's wallet.

The version of events Miller gave Friday is different from the one he gave during his interrogation, when he said he gave Lebrum a ride to a restaurant, where Lebrum kidnapped Wright. Miller said he drove away in the other direction.

Ohman had no comment about changed story.

"This just demonstrates what we've been saying all along is that you can't trust Branden Miller's statements," said Lebrum's attorney, Al Avignone. "Here he is blaming John Lebrum and minimizing his own role."

Records of Lebrum's interrogation remain sealed while Salvagni decides if his statements can be allowed at his trial.

Lambert said Wright's mother, Stacey Richards of Livingston, was relieved to learn of the plea agreement.

Investigators have said Miller bought two .40-caliber handguns from a Bozeman pawn shop two weeks before Wright was shot. A detective testified at a recent hearing that one of those guns was the murder weapon and that it had Wright's blood on it but that Miller's DNA was not found at any of the crime scenes.

Miller told detectives that he helped Lebrum cover up Wright's death by hiding the guns in a locker at the MSU field house, throwing away some of Wright's belongings and helping clean blood from Wright's vehicle, which was abandoned in Belgrade.

Miller, of Milwaukee, transferred to MSU from Colby (Kans.) Community College in the fall of 2004. He started 27 of 28 basketball games during the 2004-05 season. He became academically ineligible and was dismissed from the team on Dec. 6, 2005.

Lebrum, of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., was a freshman football player in the fall of 2003. He redshirted during that season and was dismissed from the team on Aug. 30, 2004, for disciplinary reasons, school officials said. Lebrum has also been indicted on federal drug charges, but no details have been released.

In October 2005, Lebrum broke a man's jaw in a fight during a pickup basketball game on campus and was convicted of felony criminal endangerment.

A review by the NCAA, the Big Sky Conference and the Southeastern Conference -- requested by school officials after the arrests of Miller and Lebrum -- said the football program must "be better integrated into the athletics department and university as a whole," must involve more school personnel in recruiting and limit its reliance on transfers.

Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press