When Jackson lawyer John Robinson won an appeal of Richard Wilkerson’s 2013 second-degree murder conviction, he did so with unlikely help.
Wilkerson had punched a man in a bar. As a result of the blow, the man fell, hit his head and died. After Wilkerson’s conviction, Robinson filed an appeal stating prosecutors should be required to show a defendant acted in a way that could reasonably lead to death or substantial risk to human life before jurors could convict on second-degree murder.
In crafting the appeal, Robinson called a prosecutor, Mike Blonigen, to ask about courts’ interpretations of Wyoming’s murder laws, and Blonigen, Robinson said, told him which case would support his appeal.
“I don’t know that I’ve ever met anyone that’s more devoted to the public service of making sure the criminal justice system is getting things right,” Robinson said.
The Wilkerson decision rewrote Wyoming law on second-degree murder.
Blonigen’s involvement in the appeal came partway through his 15 years as Natrona County district attorney and more than 30 years as a prosecutor. In his first trial as district attorney, Blonigen put Dale Wayne Eaton on death row. In his last, which was held in Blonigen’s hometown of Thermopolis, he won a high-profile sexual assault conviction of Casper businessman Tony Cercy.
When Dan Itzen takes command of prosecutors in the Seventh Judicial District on Jan. 8, he’ll have his work cut out for him. Aside from expanding the office’s transparency to the public, he plans to hew to Blonigen’s path, though he acknowledges that won’t be easy.
“Mike’s a generational talent,” Itzen said. “I’m not sure anybody can fill those shoes.”
When asked about Blonigen, lawyers typically use some variation of the word “encyclopedic” to describe his knowledge of Wyoming criminal case law.
Blonigen started building his mental encyclopedia early in his career. After graduating law school in the mid-’80s, Blonigen went to work in the state attorney general’s office, then helmed by Archie McClintock. McClintock retired from the Wyoming Supreme Court in 1981 when he aged out at 70 years old and then spent four years as attorney general, two overseeing Blonigen.
McClintock, whom Blonigen described as “hands down the most well-rounded, capable attorney I ever knew,” encouraged the attorneys in his office to read case law broadly, a habit Blonigen has held onto for the last 35 years.
The retiring prosecutor said he checks for and reads new rulings, in both civil and criminal cases, handed down by the Wyoming Supreme Court every morning — whether the case is relevant to his work or not.
He’s also been blessed by a good memory for case law, Blonigen said, though there are limits.
“I keep telling my guys,” the outgoing district attorney said, “there’s probably a better research system than, ‘Go ask Blonigen.’”
If there is, much of the Wyoming State Bar hasn’t caught on. Lawyers frequently call him to ask about relevant case law for work that doesn’t involve him.
Blonigen started his time as district attorney with a murder case of his own, perhaps Wyoming’s most notable.
When Blonigen came into office in December 2003, his former boss, Kevin Meenan, had just resigned. Days after his resignation, Meenan pleaded guilty to two felonies and a misdemeanor connected to his mishandling of a $55,000 personal injury settlement his stepdaughter received in 1999.
Meenan was sentenced to probation and lost his law license, though outgoing Gov. Dave Freudenthal pardoned him in 2010 and the Wyoming Supreme Court reinstated his license in 2011.
When Meenan resigned, he named Blonigen interim district attorney. Eleven days later, the Natrona County Board of Commissioners made him district attorney, effective for just over a year.
Prosecutors were uncertain, nervous, Itzen said.
“It was a scary time in the office,” he said. “Mike kind of shepherded us through that.”
Blonigen expected a challenger in the upcoming election, set for November, for a permanent successor to Meenan. First, however, Eaton was set for a February trial on eight felonies related to the 1988 murder of Lisa Marie Kimmell.
Authorities had unearthed Kimmell’s car, which had been missing for more than a decade, on property owned by Eaton about 75 miles west of Casper. Blonigen, who was assisting on the case, moved up to first chair for the trial while Meenan was still in office, after Kimmell’s parents publicly expressed concern that Meenan would be distracted by the forgery case against him.
Itzen this winter remembered the two-week trial as part of a busy year for the district attorney’s office. Itzen was still relatively new to prosecuting and sat in on what would become Wyoming’s first successful death penalty prosecution in decades.
While watching the trial, Itzen realized whoever controls the courtroom is probably winning the case. Blonigen did so, Itzen recalled.
At closing arguments, Eaton’s public defender told jurors Eaton had kidnapped, raped and killed the woman but that the killing wasn’t premeditated. Jurors convicted on seven felonies, including first-degree murder.
The jury sentenced Eaton to death, which still awaits him. A federal judge overturned his sentence in 2014 and attorneys are arguing the decision in a higher court.
Blonigen’s expectation that he would be challenged in his first election for district attorney never materialized. When voters went to the polls in November 2004, Blonigen’s was the only name on the ballot. Voters re-elected Blonigen, running unopposed, in 2006, 2010 and 2014.
“I still got boxes of campaign science (that haven’t) ever seen the light of day sitting in my garage,” he said.
He suspects the Eaton case helped ensure his initial re-election, despite his former boss’s fall from grace.
The case was one of several high-profile cold cases Blonigen prosecuted early in his tenure, including the conviction of Rita Humphrey for killing her husband in his bed. Although Humphrey was charged with first-degree murder in April 1980, a circuit court judge later ruled there was not enough evidence for the case to proceed. When Blonigen charged Humphrey in 2004, a district court judge dismissed the case again, ruling the defendant’s right to a speedy trial was violated. The Wyoming Supreme Court disagreed.
When the case went to trial, Blonigen faced off against a man who was perhaps Wyoming’s most prestigious defense attorney of the decade, Michael Krampner. Blonigen won a conviction of second-degree murder, and Judge Thomas Sullins later sentenced Humphrey to 25-40 years imprisonment. She remains incarcerated in Lusk.
In early December, a judge sentenced Kyle Martin to 75 years to life in prison for kidnapping a 95-year-old woman while on the tail end of a methamphetamine bender. Martin kept her bound in the trunk of her own car as he ran from police, and law enforcement did not find her for hours. She suffered a heart attack while duct-taped in the trunk.
After the sentencing, Blonigen told the Star-Tribune state lawmakers should not go easy on meth dealers, in reference to a criminal justice reform package slated to be considered in the upcoming legislative session.
In a mid-December interview for this story, Blonigen said he wasn’t opposed to criminal justice reform if the legislature is willing to spend on treatment programs to serve as alternatives to incarceration. Without additional funding for such programs — like early intervention and substance abuse treatment — recidivism will rise, Blonigen predicted.
“Criminal justice reform is more of a soundbite than reality,” he said. “(You’ve) got to spend some money now, but it’s gonna pay off for you in the long run.”
Blonigen, who spoke against a 2017 attempt at criminal justice reform that later died, pointed this month to Natrona County’s youth diversion and probation programs as examples of effective models for reducing recidivism while avoiding incarceration.
Authorities in Natrona County, including Blonigen, told the Star-Tribune earlier this year that the programs have improved graduation rates and kept the county’s overall crime rate lower than comparable communities.
Blonigen cited his office’s own statistics indicating that about 80 percent of children in Natrona County’s youth diversion programs are successful and don’t return to the criminal justice system. Their records are either never created or are wiped clean upon successful completion of the program.
It’s those programs, Blonigen said, that keep Natrona County’s crime rate lower than that of Laramie County, which is similarly sized.
John Miner, a defense attorney who once worked in the district attorney’s office prosecuting misdemeanors, said Blonigen gave him the leeway to charge crimes appropriately, even if doing so wasn’t the strategic option. In Natrona County Circuit Court, some hardened criminals appear, Miner said, but more frequently he dealt with people he calls “knuckleheads.” When a person wasn’t a threat to the community, Miner wouldn’t press them with heavy charges.
Blonigen has a good sense of what matters to the people of Natrona County, Miner said, and prioritizes as needed.
“He’s not a put-everybody-in-jail kind of guy,” Miner told the Star-Tribune. “He’s a do-the-right-thing kind of guy.”
Blonigen’s most memorable case is one you probably don’t remember.
When asked by the Star-Tribune which prosecution he will remember most, Blonigen named a suspected serial rapist he prosecuted while still an assistant district attorney.
Blonigen prosecuted the man in 1995 for the sexual assault of a woman who worked as a stripper. The man had paid the woman to dance in his motel room. The woman testified at trial that when he refused to pay her, she tried to leave, and he raped her at knifepoint.
The suspect had been previously accused of raping three other women in three other states, although none of those charges stuck.
Wyoming jurors convicted the man you probably don’t remember, Randy Lee Dean, of first-degree sexual assault. A judge sentenced him to 15-20 years imprisonment and told the victim she’d put herself in danger and to find a new career.
Reflecting on the case earlier this month, Blonigen said he put together one of the better jury selections in his career.
“You know, I’m trying to get jurors to get past what this young lady did for a living,” Blonigen said. “We had a dangerous offender, and he knew how to pick his victims.”
Blonigen leaves office as change sweeps Natrona County’s criminal justice institutions. Kerri Johnson will end nearly 20 years of service at the public defender’s office the same day Blonigen steps down. She will take over for Sullins, the judge in the Humphrey case, who is retiring after 23 years on the district court bench.
Curtis Cheney, another attorney in the public defender’s office, is headed to Thermopolis to work as a prosecutor, and the office’s lead attorney, Rob Oldham, is nearing retirement eligibility.
Gen Tuma, who has served as the court’s clerk for decades, is retiring. Anne Volin, Tuma’s chief deputy clerk for the past 20 years, will replace her.
Itzen ran unopposed to replace Blonigen and received 79 percent of the vote. He was tight-lipped this month about changes in the prosecutor’s office, but attorneys and law enforcement said they expect Ava Bell, a prosecutor who has handled misdemeanor and juvenile matters, to pick up some of the felony casework that now needs coverage.
When Blonigen announced in May he would retire after completing his term, he told the Star-Tribune he made the decision to retire from the district attorney’s office years earlier, though word apparently didn’t get around. Days before his announcement, attorneys queried by the Star-Tribune said they were uncertain about Blonigen’s plans.
He’s playing his cards close to his chest, still. Blonigen has yet to say what he plans to do after he steps down. He’ll get some work done around the house before getting back to practicing law, though he won’t say in what capacity.
Cercy, the businessman convicted this fall of third-degree sexual assault, won’t be sentenced until Blonigen has retired. And a backlog at the probation and parole office means the investigation that needs to be undertaken before a judge can hand down Cercy’s sentence may be months away. Blonigen is willing to handle the sentencing, though he said it’ll have to work with his schedule.
While the prosecutor hasn’t made public his future plans, he said he’d like to find a new challenge. He said whatever he does, he’ll probably be practicing law. He said he’s spent a lot of the last 15 years tending to work in places other than the courtroom and would like to change that. Blonigen said he is interested in civil litigation and wouldn’t rule out assisting on appeals work.
But don’t expect him to be setting up shop as a full-time defense attorney anytime soon.
“To represent a violent criminal I was fairly confident was guilty, who committed a horrible crime? Yeah, I’m probably not your guy.”