A Natrona County District Court judge on Monday denied a motion for a new trial in the case of a Casper man found guilty of murdering his mother.
Judge Daniel Forgey ruled that the trial offered sufficient evidence to prove a conviction and that Andrew Steplock’s attorney did not effectively show there was any prejudice or ineffective counsel for him at trial. Steplock continues to serve a life sentence in the Wyoming Medium Correctional Institution for murdering his mother, Deborah, in 2019.
The motion was filed on Dec. 4, after the deadline for appeals in the case had been extended twice. For the claim of ineffective counsel to be legitimate, the defense needed to show there was evidence or testimony missing from the case which would have reasonably changed the outcome.
After hearing arguments from the state and Steplock’s appellate lawyer Monday, the court held the defense did not present adequate proof that the information in the original trial was incomplete.
While Forgey took a recess to deliberate his decision, all attorneys and witnesses on the call dropped off the screen, leaving only Steplock’s feed. He sat in a sterile corner, in an orange jumpsuit and matching face mask. Three of Steplock’s sisters, Betsi, Lesley and Rebecca, turned their cameras on and looked at their brother in silence. As he had during the rest of the proceedings, Steplock avoided looking back.
On Feb. 26, 2019, Steplock broke into his parents’ home through a back window, intending to steal money. When his mother saw him from the living room and asked what he was doing, he shot her. He panicked and began driving south to Colorado, where he was later found and arrested. His mother was declared dead later that day.
Steplock was found guilty by a jury in November 2019. He had pleaded not guilty and not guilty by reason of mental illness to four felonies — felony murder, second-degree murder, aggravated burglary and possession of a deadly weapon with unlawful intent.
Months after legal proceedings began, Steplock introduced another argument for his innocence, testifying in court that demons had been speaking to him leading up to the incident. He told the courtroom that it was a demon who convinced him to break the window and shoot his mother. A three-hour mental health evaluation found he had a mood disorder, but not psychosis.
The defense filed a motion on Dec. 4 for a new trial, citing ineffective counsel. The case for retrial centered on Steplock’s mental evaluation, performed by psychologist Dr. Elizabeth Donegan. Public defender Robin Cooper argued that since Donegan didn’t have access to Steplock’s prior educational or mental health records, including those pertaining to a substance abuse problem he received treatment for as a teenager, she couldn’t have made a full assessment.
In questioning Monday, Donegan said she doesn’t usually receive those kinds of records from legal teams. She also said that since they would have been years out of date, they likely would not have affected her evaluation.
“The evaluation has to do with the mental state at the time of the offense,” Donegan said. “Whether or not educational records from several years before would give me information about someone’s mental state at the time of the offense, I wouldn’t say that it absolutely would not, but it would be unlikely.”
Steplock’s lawyers during the trial, Joseph Hampton and Natrona County public defender Joseph Cole, said they sought funding for a second evaluation but were turned down. Wyoming State Public Defender Diane Lozano testified Monday that the committee that reviewed that request found there wasn’t any evidence of Steplock being mentally impaired or struggling to tell right from wrong. The defense team tried to bring another witness to testify to Steplock’s mental illness, but Forgey ruled to keep that person off the stand both because the court was notified too late and because state law prevents anyone from making mental evaluations on the stand.
Cole also said Monday that had he known more about the relationship between marijuana use and psychosis, he may have been able to make a stronger case that Steplock was suffering mentally at the time. District Attorney and prosecutor Kevin Taheri clarified with Donegan that voluntary marijuana use does not constitute an abnormal mental condition that impairs a person’s understanding of reality.