Murder trial set for accused Anita Knutson killer

Charles Crane/MDN Judge Richard Hagar has an off the record conversation with the defense and prosecution at the beginning of Nichole Erin Rice’s preliminary hearing.

The preliminary hearing for Nichole Erin Rice, 34, the accused killer of Anita Knutson, 18, was held on Sept. 8 in North Central District Court in Minot.

Rice is charged with Class AA murder in the June 2007 stabbing death of Knutson, who was a childhood friend and her roommate at the time. The state’s case was laid out by Minot Police officer Mikali Talbott, who began working on the cold case sometime in 2018. Talbott’s testimony highlighted various facts and evidence from the scene that indicate the killer had access to Knutson’s apartment in Minot, as well as a number of discrepancies in Rice’s statements and alibi for the night of the murder.

Talbott also noted a number of statements made by people who knew both Rice and Knutson at the time who said that despite being very close when they were younger, the pair’s relationship had grown toxic since they moved in together. Those interviewed recalled conflicts over an alarm clock and a fish tank, as well as Rice calling Knutson derogatory names to others. Talbott said that the relationship had become so strained that Knutson had installed a lock on her door about a month before the murder.

Rice had remained a person of interest in the case in the years that followed the initial investigation, and provided a number of statements to the authorities. Talbott pointed to a series of inconsistencies in Rice’s statements, and the statements of family members that broke down the narrative Rice had given of her movements on June 2. Talbott also introduced a statement from a man that heard Rice make a drunken confession while at a party.

The State’s case also relies on a DNA sample collected from the murder weapon. The sample was too small to be tested against the law enforcement database, but could be analyzed with other samples side by side. The sample was tested against a number of persons of interest, but Rice was the only individual who could not be excluded by investigators.

Rice’s defense attorney Philip Becher used his redirect to press Talbott on the investigation into an alternative suspect named Devan Hall, who had been arrested for breaking into homes armed with a knife in the days after the murder. Becher introduced a statement indicating that someone matching his description had been seen running in the area of Knutson’s apartment on the evening of June 2. Current Minot Police Chief John Klug was the arresting officer at the time and wrote in his report that Hall had said, “I’ve been in a lot of houses here.”

Becher would bolster his argument by citing a number of reports from prior investigators and even analysts from the FBI who theorized that Hall was the most likely suspect to have broken in and killed Knutson. Talbott indicated that investigators ruled Talbott out as a suspect after acquiring video footage of him arriving in Minot at the train station the evening after the murder.

Judge Richard Hagar ruled there was enough evidence to proceed to trial, and Rice pleaded not guilty. The pre-trial conference is scheduled for Nov. 16.


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