CHEYENNE — The state of Wyoming clearly violated a Cheyenne man's constitutional right to a speedy trial by allowing over 900 days to pass between his 2011 arrest on murder charges and his trial early last year, his lawyer told the state supreme court on Tuesday.
Nathaniel Castellanos, 36, was convicted last year of two counts of murder and one count of attempted murder in the August 2011 shootings of three people at his Cheyenne home. Police found Corey Walker, 21, and Megan McIntosh, 25, dead at the scene. Another woman, Amber McGuire, survived gunshot wounds and testified against Castellanos at trial.
Castellanos' jury rejected prosecutors' request for the death penalty. He's now appealing his three life sentences.
Cheyenne lawyer Elizabeth Lance, who represents Castellanos in his appeal, told the Wyoming Supreme Court in arguments on Tuesday that the Wyoming Public Defender's Office effectively delayed action on his case because it lacked enough death-penalty qualified lawyers to bring him to trial faster. The court will issue a written decision on Castellanos' appeal later.
While his case was awaiting trial, Castellanos himself objected repeatedly to the delays and said he refused to give up his right to a speedy trial, Lance said.
The American Bar Association sets standards for lawyers in death penalty cases, including training and levels of experience. Lance said the state's handling of Castellanos' case shows a systematic breakdown of the state's justice system in regard to handling death penalty cases.
"If we're going to be a state that has capital punishment, then we must provide attorneys who are qualified to handle a death penalty case," Lance said.
District Judge Peter Arnold, the first judge to handle the case, expressed concern as early as October 2011 whether Castellanos' legal team was qualified to represent him in a death penalty case, Lance said. She added that Arnold summoned State Public Defender Diane Lozano to speak about the case and said she told Arnold that her office only had two death-penalty qualified attorneys.
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Lance told Supreme Court justices that it's not enough for the state to have only two death-penalty qualified lawyers on staff. She described the first lawyers Castellanos received as "almost as a placeholder."
While Castellanos' case was pending in district court, Lozano urged lawmakers to appropriate more money to her agency to help cover the costs of capital cases. She told lawmakers in early 2014 that her office worked on seven potential death penalty cases between July 1, 2012, and Oct. 31, 2013, compared with only one capital case in the previous two budget cycles.
Castellanos received a second set of lawyers from the Public Defender's Office in early 2012. Those lawyers filed requests to have Castellanos' mental competency evaluated at the state hospital in Evanston even as Castellanos himself continued to press to go to trial.
In January 2013, the final pair of lawyers from the Public Defender's Office entered the case and represented him through a trial before District Judge Thomas Campbell more than a year later.
Assistant Attorney General Josh Eames told justices that there was no systematic breakdown in Castellanos' case. He stressed that Castellanos was represented by two lawyers at all times and didn't ultimately receive the death penalty. "Every delay in this case was caused by Mr. Castellanos or his attorneys," Eames said.
Concern over the Wyoming Public Defender's Office's representation of defendants in death penalty cases has become a common issue in the federal courts. Wyoming last executed an inmate in 1992, when it put convicted murderer Mark Hopkinson to death.
Wyoming currently has no one on death row. The last two men on Wyoming death row saw their death sentences overturned by federal judges who ruled their constitutional rights were violated when they received inadequate defense from the Wyoming Public Defender's Office.