In early 2019, a Natrona County judge ruled a Casper man immune from prosecution in the murder case against him. When the state’s highest court determines the case, it could broadly impact Wyoming laws and its courts’ procedures.
Judge Catherine Wilking determined in February that Wyoming’s latest self-defense law made Jason John immune in the first-degree murder case he faced. Prosecutors alleged — and John admitted — that he shot Wesley Willow Jr. in summer 2018 nine times near the entrance of John’s trailer on North Center Street.
But following a December 2018 filing from Tim Cotton, the court-appointed lawyer representing John, arguing that Wyoming’s new “stand your ground” law made John immune from prosecution, Wilking determined that she would have to hold a hearing to determine application of the law. At the beginning of that hearing, she asked lawyers to appeal whatever determinations she would make, noting that the case concerned legislation untested in Wyoming’s criminal courts.
“I am the first to confess that this is my interpretation of the statute and the case law and it may well be that the Wyoming Supreme Court will interpret these issues and statutes differently,” she said at the hearing. “The courts and the litigants throughout the state of Wyoming are in desperate need of guidance on how to proceed in these cases under this new statutory scheme.”
The judge ultimately found that the new law required her to presume that Willow, who ran into John’s house before John shot him, intended to break the law forcefully and to presume John had a reasonable and honest belief that he had to use deadly force to stop him. She ruled that Assistant District Attorney Kevin Taheri and Natrona County District Attorney Dan Itzen did not overcome those presumptions in the hearing, and John was therefore immune from prosecution. The judge discharged John’s bond requirements and he left the courthouse a free man.
The attorney general’s office filed 61 pages to the court in July, calling for justices to determine that district court judges are not authorized to throw out cases on the basis of the new law. In the filing, the state argues the district court should not have chosen to create a new pretrial procedure for considering challenges under the new law. The law only provides direction to prosecutors, the government lawyers state.
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“The district court’s creation of a procedure violated the separation of powers,” the attorney general’s filing argues. “Its interpretation also impermissibly extended the language of the statute.”
The state’s lawyers went on to argue that even if the Supreme Court finds against them on the other issues and determines that Wilking correctly interpreted the new law by creating a procedure specific to it, prosecutors still showed the evidence necessary to show probable cause John did not act in self-defense.
In response, appellate public defenders argued that Wilking’s decision to hold the hearing was an appropriate way to determine if she had jurisdiction over the case at all. When she found the case should be dismissed, the defense lawyers argued, she did not seize prosecutors’ power but exercised her own.
Because John had not yet been provided access through the discovery process to evidence collected by law enforcement, the defense team stated, he could not have had a fair chance for dismissal in an earlier circuit court hearing.
In October, appellate lawyers appeared before the court, which met at the University of Wyoming College of Law. During the 70-minute hearing, a defense lawyer argued that the Supreme Court should not review John’s case itself. Instead, it should consider the case only to determine how to modify implementation of the law. And justices questioned an assistant attorney general extensively regarding prosecutors’ arguments that the court should not review any cases under the new law, which should be instead only understood as guidance.
When Justice Keith Kautz asked Assistant Attorney General Sam Williams if he was familiar with similar interpretations elsewhere in Wyoming law, the attorney general’s representative admitted he was not.
“The state wasn’t able to find any similar structure in our statutes,” Williams said.
The appeals court did not make a determination during the October hearing and has not yet issued a written opinion. However, the case will likely have extensive effect: One interpretation of law, Kautz said at the hearing, could mean the Wyoming Supreme Court would have to review every criminal case that involves certain self-defense provisions.