CASPER — In the first judicial test of Wyoming’s new “stand your ground” law, a Natrona County judge on Friday dismissed a first-degree murder case, but implored prosecutors to appeal to the state’s highest court.
Judge Catherine Wilking handed down the ruling following a two-and-a-half-hour hearing, the bulk of which she ruled was required by the new law. Under the law, a person who is attacked at a place where he is legally allowed to be has no obligation to retreat, so long as he is not the initial aggressor or breaking any laws. A person who meets those criteria cannot be criminally prosecuted.
Jason T. John, who had faced a single count of murder after he shot a man entering his north Casper house in August, left the courthouse in the car of his attorney, Tim Cotton. Cotton declined to comment after the hearing, except to say that he expects the public defender’s Cheyenne appellate office to handle the appeal. Cotton said he may be prepared to make a statement early next week.
District Attorney Dan Itzen said he would take Wilking’s advice and appeal the case in conjunction with the Attorney General’s office. The law took effect in July, only about a month before John shot Wesley Willow, Jr. at around 4 a.m. on Aug. 3 at a trailer home on the 1200 block of North Center Street. When the hearing began at 1:30 p.m., the courtroom audience included a judge, a judge’s clerk, multiple private attorneys unaffiliated with the case and John’s family. Cotton and Assistant District Attorney Kevin Taheri began with arguments over the necessity of a hearing to decide whether John’s case should be dismissed.
The judge said she had reviewed law in Colorado, Florida, Kentucky and Kansas, and all four states require a dismissal hearing in cases that could involve immunity similar to that created by the new law. She decided to rule against prosecutors, concluding they needed to show beyond a reasonable doubt that John was not immune from prosecution. She then made her second of many admonishments to appeal. “I think it’s imperative that this matter be appealed to the Wyoming Supreme Court” Wilking said.
Wyoming’s first dismissal hearing of its kind then began.
Taheri called Detective Anthony Stedellie to testify, and he remained on the stand for the bulk of the remainder of the hearing. For nearly an hour, he responded to questions from Taheri, saying that John shot Willow as he ran toward John’s trailer home.
By Shane Sanderson
Casper Star-Tribune Via Wyoming News Exchange