CHEYENNE — A lawyer for a teenager convicted of murder in a home invasion killing urged the Wyoming Supreme Court on Thursday to determine the teen’s life sentence was unconstitutional.
Lawyer Kirk Morgan represents 18-year-old Wyatt Bear Cloud, one of three teens convicted in the August 2009 killing of Sheridan businessman Robert Ernst.
“How do you decide that someone should be incarcerated forever when they’re 15, 16 years old?” Morgan asked the court.
Prosecutors say Bear Cloud, who turned 16 two months before Ernst’s killing, wasn’t the triggerman. Ernst was shot and killed after Bear Cloud and the other two teenagers entered his home with a stolen pistol in the middle of the night.
Bear Cloud’s lawyers have argued that police violated his rights when they questioned him without a lawyer or his father present. And Bear Cloud’s lawyers now say he received inadequate legal advice before he pleaded guilty to the murder charge in district court without having a plea agreement in place with prosecutors.
District Judge John Fenn last year denied Bear Cloud’s attempt to back out of his guilty plea. That left only two possible sentences: life in prison or life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Fenn imposed the flat life sentence, meaning it’s possible that a Wyoming governor could take the unusual step of commuting Bear Cloud’s sentence to make him eligible for parole. Fenn also sentenced Bear Cloud to serve up to 25 years on an aggravated burglary conviction before he starts his life term.
Morgan noted that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled last year in another case that young people serving life prison terms must have a meaningful opportunity to obtain release if they didn’t kill the victim.
Morgan asked the Wyoming court to expand on the decision to rule that a life sentence for Bear Cloud was unconstitutional. The prospect that Bear Cloud’s sentence might be commuted failed to satisfy the high court’s requirement, he said.
The Wyoming Supreme Court in October denied requests by the American Civil Liberties Union of Wyoming and the Equal Justice Initiative, an Alabama-based group, to file friend-of-the-court briefs to raise similar constitutional issues on Bear Cloud’s behalf.
Jeffrey Pope, assistant Wyoming attorney general, said Bear Cloud and the other two teenagers, Dennis Poitra Jr. and Dharminder Vir Sen, had armed themselves with the stolen handgun and a knife and club before they donned bandanas to cover their faces and broke into Ernst’s home.
Police say Sen fired the fatal shots, but that Bear Cloud later told an investigator that if he had the gun he would have killed Ernst’s wife also and burned the couple’s house down. Pope emphasized that the crime wasn’t a spur of the moment thing.
Pope said the U.S. Supreme Court ruling didn’t apply to Bear Cloud because he had pleaded guilty in a homicide case. Pope added that Ernst’s family will never have him back.
Chief Justice Marilyn S. Kite of the Wyoming Supreme Court said cases of juveniles committing murders involve horrible facts. Yet, she said, “because they’re children, the Supreme Court requires us to treat them differently.”
Justice E. James Burke said that by pleading guilty, Bear Cloud gave up any opportunity to appeal Fenn’s decision not to transfer his case to juvenile court, where possible sentences would be much lighter.
Pope responded that, given the overwhelming evidence against Bear Cloud, pleading guilty and hoping for the eventual commutation of his life sentence was his best hope.
The court will issue a written decision on Bear Cloud’s appeal later.