CHEYENNE (AP) — A lawyer for a Riverton man serving a life sentence for murder told the Wyoming Supreme Court on Tuesday that his client’s conviction was a miscarriage of justice.
Gabriel Drennen was convicted of first-degree murder in the 2010 killing of Leroy Hoster, 29. Lawyers on both sides say Drennen shot Hoster, who was unarmed, four times while trying to evict him from a trailer.
Lawyer Thomas Jubin, representing Drennen, told the Wyoming Supreme Court on Tuesday that a trial prosecutor incorrectly told the jury in closing argument, “In the state of Wyoming, there’s a law against shooting an unarmed man.”
Jubin said that’s not in fact the law. He said Hoster had threatened to kill Drennen and pushed him over a fence. Jubin said Drennen, then 36, feared for his life as Hoster came after him and that the shooting was justified.
“There’s simply nothing in the record to overcome the prejudice from this prosecutor’s clear and repeated error,” Jubin said.
Justice Barton R. Voigt asked Drennen’s lawyer why his client was wearing the 9-mm pistol on his belt when he went to the trailer to post no-trespassing signs.
Drennen also carried a tape recorder that captured the sounds of the fatal encounter and had other weapons in his vehicle.
“Even nowadays, I would think most people in Wyoming would think it a bit odd that a person shows up with a gun strapped to his hip,” Voigt said.
Jubin said Drennen habitually wore a gun. “Mr. Drennen testified that putting a gun on was like putting on socks for him,” he said.
Jubin argued that Drennen’s original defense lawyer should have called medical and law enforcement experts to bolster his self-defense claim.
The Wyoming Supreme Court last year granted Drennen’s request to send the case back to District Judge Norman Young of Lander, who presided over the trial, to consider Drennen’s claim he didn’t get fair treatment.
Young concluded that Drennen’s trial lawyer “failed to exercise reasonable professional judgment” in failing to retain expert witnesses.
However, Young concluded that while Drennen’s trial wasn’t perfect, it was fair. “In the end, the monumental difficult in explaining defendant’s actions as outlined above remains,” the judge wrote.
Lawyer Jeffrey Pope with the Wyoming Attorney General’s Office argued Tuesday that Drennen got a fair trial. Pope says written jury instructions spelled the law on self-defense correctly.
“Drennen was his own worst enemy. He behaved oddly at trial,” Pope said. He said Drennen created two delays, once by bursting into tears and again by distracting the jury.
Pope said Drennen had an obligation under state law to try to retreat rather than kill Hoster – even if Drennen truly feared for his life.
Pope said Drennen asked the jury to believe that he was unable to move away from Hoster because his wallet had stuck in the ground after Hoster pushed him over a fence. He said the jury didn’t find Drennen credible.
Addressing the trial prosecutor’s statement that state law prohibits shooting an unarmed man, Pope said it’s possible for prosecutors to misspeak, the same as anyone else. “At worse, that’s simply what happened here,” Pope said.
The Wyoming Supreme Court will release a written decision later.