The Wyoming Supreme Court overturned a second-degree murder conviction for a Buffalo man Friday, changing a long-standing legal precedent in the state.
Richard Wilkerson was convicted in April 2013 for a bar fight that led to the death of Brian Newman.
The Supreme Court's decision reversed Wilkerson’s conviction and ruled that Wyoming’s precedent for determining second-degree murder is insufficient to conclude a person acted with ill will.
After an argument at Century Club Bar on Sept. 21, 2012, Wilkerson approached Newman from behind while he was sitting at the bar and punched him on the side of his head. The punch knocked Newman off his bar stool, and he struck his head on the bar ledge.
An autopsy revealed Newman died from bleeding in his head as a result of falling to the ground.
Wilkerson and his defense attorney, John Robinson, filed an appeal after his conviction, claiming a person should be convicted of second-degree murder only if they acted in a way that could reasonably lead to death or substantial risk to human life.
The state’s precedent for malice had previously been decided by a 1986 case involving Dennis Crozier, who was convicted of second-degree murder for strangling a 6-year-old boy. The statute required the state prove the defendant acted purposely, not that he or she killed purposely.
“The problem with that is that there are a vast range of activities that could result in a second-degree murder conviction,” he said. “We’re not normally accustomed to people dying when they get punched in the head or get shoved.”
The new precedent requires the state to show the defendant had an extreme indifference to the value of human life.
“It was a brave decision by the Supreme Court,” Robinson said. “It is a hard thing to do to say, ‘We’re changing three decades worth of jurisprudence in Wyoming,’ and that’s what they did.”
Kenneth DeCock, prosecuting attorney for Johnson County, said he doesn’t think the decision will overturn many other convictions because the ruling is relatively specific to Wilkerson’s case.
Right now, the prosecutor and defense attorneys are reevaluating the case. Wilkerson may have a new trial if the opposing sides do not reach a sentencing agreement.