LARAMIE – Ambiguous language in a 2018 law means the Wyoming Supreme Court might have to review every criminal case that involves certain self-defense provisions, a Supreme Court justice said Thursday.
Justice Keith Kautz made the statement in an auditorium at the University of Wyoming College of Law, where the court heard arguments in the appeal of a first-degree murder case originating in Casper.
A Natrona County District Court judge dismissed the case before trial earlier this year, ruling that a “stand your ground” law, only a month old at the time of the killing, made the shooter immune from prosecution.
Police arrested Jason John in August 2018 after he shot and killed a man trying to enter his north Casper home. John shot Wesley Willow Jr. nine times with an AR-15, police say, after exchanging cellphone messages with a woman who had dated John before taking up again with Willow.
A jury never had the opportunity to consider John’s actions and he is — in the eyes of the law — presumed innocent.
Natrona County District Court Judge Catherine Wilking, in issuing her ruling finding John immune from prosecution, noted that the law had not been considered yet by Wyoming courts. The law, passed in 2018, promised increased legal protections for people acting in self-defense. Those provisions specify that people protecting themselves generally do not have an obligation to retreat from attackers and that people in their homes are generally considered to be acting in self-defense when they shoot unlawful intruders.
The specific applications of those sections of the law, however, are still to be determined.
The new law, Wilking said in February, does not make clear how it is intended to be implemented.
During that dismissal hearing — which the district court judge constructed on the basis of procedure in other states with similar immunity laws — Wilking asked repeatedly for attorneys to appeal the case so the state’s highest judicial authority could determine whether her implementation was appropriate. State lawyers took her up on her request, and appeared in Laramie at a law school event hosting the court’s hearings.
Although the location was selected for law students’ exposure, the arguments and any rulings they produce are otherwise legally consistent with any Supreme Court proceeding.
When the hearing began at 9 a.m., John was not visible in the Laramie auditorium audience of about 70. And although both lawyers who argued the issue in Natrona County District Court before its dismissal were in attendance, appellate lawyers from the state attorney general’s office and the public defender’s office argued before the court’s five justices.
During the 70-minute hearing, which the court extended by 10 minutes from its typical hourlong setting, justices questioned Assistant Attorney General Sam Williams extensively regarding prosecution arguments that the court should not review any cases under the new law. The law, Williams argued, should be instead only understood as guidance to prosecutors.
The court focused much of its questioning on the leading portion of the prosecutors’ argument, which Williams stated would likely make more work for the courts. The Supreme Court will have no choice but to create more such work, Williams said, because the Legislature’s lack of specificity in the law’s language.
When Kautz asked 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 justice and the state’s lawyer then discussed a proposed implementation of law that could require any pretrial immunity decisions to be appealable directly to the Wyoming Supreme Court. Once the immunity issue had been resolved, then cases could proceed to trial.
“There will essentially have to be two trials,“ Williams said.
“Unless the finding is the court didn’t meet its burden of proof at the first one,” Kautz replied.
Desiree Wilson, a senior lawyer from the public defender’s Cheyenne office, then took to the lectern. She spent much of her time presenting portions of evidence not addressed during the prosecution’s arguments. Wilson’s statements largely mirrored a series of issues raised by the defense’s initial filing to the state Supreme Court.
In that filing Tim Cotton, the court-appointed attorney who represented John in Wilking’s court, argued that a Casper police detective had lied on the stand and prosecutors knew it. The appeals lawyer, however, diverged from that portion of Cotton’s filing, stating that she would not address the reason or motivation for changes in testimony between hearings in Natrona County courts.
Wilson said, however, that omission of some evidence in circuit court meant a judge — as well as Cotton — was not able to accurately understand the implications of the new self-defense law.
“At the circuit court … there were a lot of critical facts omitted,” Wilson said.
She said that when examining a fuller scope of evidence in the case, “a completely different picture emerges.”
Wilson 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.
In the proposed implementation, Wilson said, defendants should be required only to make a simple showing of the law’s application, preventing prosecutors from bringing a case.
Those prosecutors, Wilson said, should then be required to overcome that showing at a hearing called for the specific purpose of determining immunity under the stand your ground and castle doctrine portions of the law. Defendants would reserve that right up until the trial was to begin.
The appeals court did not make a determination during the hearing, but will issue a written opinion later.