A 68-year-old retired veterinarian was convicted of voluntary manslaughter Thursday in the shooting death of a father in a Carter City parking lot after a jury rejected the defense’s claim that the veterinarian’s actions were protected by Wyoming’s new “stand your ground” law.
The verdict drew gasps from the crowd after a four-person jury, which is definitely not a number allowed under Wyoming law, returned its decision less than 30 minutes after the trial ended. The defendant, Issa Johnson, will be sentenced at a later date by Judge Catherine Wilking, who was the only person over the age of 15 who spoke at the trial.
It’s unclear if Wilking rejected any previous effort by the defense to have the case thrown out under the new law; in a startling lack of transparency, there was no log or available information about the case’s history. That might be due to the fact that the trial was argued by students at CY Middle School last week as part of an assignment.
In any case, Johnson faces up to 20 years in prison for the July killing of Aaron Brown at a Gas and Go in Carter City. None of Johnson or Brown’s family was in attendance Thursday. The gallery was filled half with children, half with parents who were disregarding courthouse rules surrounding cellphones. Wilking paid little mind to the blatant abuse of rules barring videotaping and photographing of court proceedings at the Casper courthouse.
Prosecutors Landon Barlets and Calla Shosh, despite some fumbling that Wilking patiently allowed and even corrected, presented an effective case that Johnson was not acting as a reasonable person, as required by law, when he shot Brown three times in a Carter City parking lot. In the end, the jury was unmoved by the emotional pleas from defense attorneys Sofia Newsome and Braydin Sisco.
According to the proceedings, the deadly July encounter between Brown and Johnson was sparked by an argument over Brown’s friend and driver, Cameron Drake, parking illegally in a handicapped spot. Johnson’s wife, Randi, is disabled from a car accident, and Johnson is known around the gas station as being hypervigilant about people incorrectly using the handicapped spot.
Both Brown and Cameron had been drinking at the Mother of All Rodeo event before arriving at the gas station, according to court testimony, though the topic of alcohol consumption played little role in both the defense’s and the prosecution’s cases.
According to testimony, Johnson confronted Drake as he sat in the parked truck waiting for Brown to return for diapers for his child, who was in the vehicle at the time. Johnson allegedly threatened Drake, hit the truck with his foot and hand, and attempted to pull Drake from the vehicle. That’s when Brown exited the Gas and Go, saw what was happening, yelled at Johnson and pushed him over with the box of diapers.
From the ground, Johnson pulled his gun — which he was licensed to carry — and shot Brown. There was conflicting testimony on whether Johnson had threatened to shoot Drake before Brown arrived and if Brown continued to threaten Johnson as he loomed over him.
Wilking received the verdict wearing street clothes, which is not typical. There were no clerks in the room to consult about the lack of case history, and no bailiffs were present to lead Johnson away, a baffling abandonment of security that was likely informed by the fact that none of this was even remotely real.
Carter City — and the county in which its allegedly located, Carter County — does not exist. No Issa Johnson was convicted in Casper on Thursday. There may be an Issa Johnson somewhere, but he did not — or has not — murdered an Aaron Brown at a Gas and Go. There is no prosecutor in Natrona County named Landon Bartels, no defense counsel named Braydin Sisco.
The point of the proceeding, which completely fooled an unnamed Casper newspaper reporter, was that maybe there will be someday.
Judge Wilking is real, as is her sister, CY Middle School teacher Whitney Wilking. The trial Thursday was a mock display of the often dramatized climactic moment in the American criminal justice system. Eighth-graders in Wilking’s class at CY played the parts of defense attorneys, prosecutors, witnesses and defendant. The point of the exercise was to expose the students to the justice system, to walk them through legal proceedings and maybe to spark an interest in pursuing law as a future career.
They read opening statements, called and cross-examined witnesses (who may or may not have been reading from prepared scripts), built cases and entered exhibits into evidence. Judge Wilking was perhaps more patient than she often is: She didn’t vocally object to either counsels very expressive body language, as she later told them she often would have.
After the jury returned the verdict, both the jury members and the students peppered Judge Wilking with questions. Who could be deemed the aggressor when both Johnson and Brown seemed aggressive? Why wasn’t the alcohol angle of the story pursued more? How many cases had Wilking presided over? Does she ever put her feet up on her desk in the courtroom and relax, hands on the back of her head?
No, she said. She takes her duties as a judge seriously. She ended the exercise by praising the students, particularly those playing the parts of the attorneys on both sides, and urged them to consider a career as lawyers.
But before she answered questions, Judge Wilking briefly left the courtroom with her sister. The students, many clothed in ties and button-ups, became kids again. They talked and turned around in the courtrooms pews. One kid bopped another on the head repeatedly with a rolled up piece of paper, as the other kid began yelling about self-defense.