Wyoming already had reasonable self-defense laws on the books before state legislators bowed to pressure from the gun rights lobby and made ours the 25th state to pass a “stand your ground” law last year.
Numerous and diverse stakeholder groups lobbied against adoption at the time and I wrote a grim prediction in this column: Innocent people will die if ‘stand your ground’ passes.
The state has just seen the first case in which a defendant’s lawyer has invoked the new law to argue that his client had no choice but to kill an unarmed man.
What happened at a north Casper trailer park last Aug. 3 when Jason John shot and killed Wesley Willow is so highly questionable that the judge advised both sides at the outset of the first-degree murder case that her decision should be immediately appealed to the Wyoming Supreme Court, according to a story in the Casper Star-Tribune.
During a hearing that lasted more than two hours, a police detective testified that John shot Willow nine times, including multiple rounds in his back, with an AR 15 rifle.
One round was fired into the back of Willow’s head, likely as he lay face down, according to the medical examiner.
John walked out of the courtroom a free man.
Without the stand your ground law, John would have faced a jury of his peers that would have heard the details, weighed the evidence and decided his guilt or innocence.
Instead, under the new law, Natrona County Judge Catherine Wilking held a dismissal hearing to decide if prosecutors could prove that John was not immune from prosecution. The prosecutor could not convince Wilking that John had a duty to retreat and not to use deadly force.
Natrona County District Attorney Dan Itzen took the judge’s advice and, in conjunction with the state attorney general’s office, is appealing Wilking’s decision.
But after what transpired in court last month, the public needs to ask state lawmakers a fundamental question: Is this the kind of justice you envisioned when you passed this law?
Both the Wyoming Senate and House voted overwhelmingly in favor of the stand your ground bill sponsored by Rep. Tim Salazar (R-Dubois) and Sen. Anthony Bouchard (R-Cheyenne), the former director of Wyoming Gun Owners.
That organization and the National Rifle Association mounted an all-out attack against legislators who opposed the bill, notifying all 30 senators in handwritten messages that any attempt to strip the bill of its immunity provisions would be viewed as an “anti-gun” vote.
The groups wanted total immunity from civil lawsuits for people who used the stand your ground law in their defense. The Senate didn’t bow to the pressure and it removed such immunity, but it passed the bill 26-4. The House also approved the measure by a 41-9 veto-proof margin.
Then-Gov. Matt Mead warily viewed the Legislature’s work and wondered if the bill was necessary. He let it become state law but without the endorsement of his signature.
Based on the John case, Mead was right to be concerned. Questions about the bill were raised by the Wyoming Trial Lawyers Association at committee meetings long before it arrived on the governor’s desk.
After “stand your ground” became law, Thomas Jubin, a Cheyenne attorney and WTLA lobbyist, correctly assessed the situation. “The laws that existed in Wyoming were clear and strongly allowed people to defend themselves,” Jubin told the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle. “This bill just makes hamburger out of that law. It’s more confusing than anything else.”
Indeed it is. Last Friday, after learning what happened in the John hearing, Jubin told me, “Some of these difficulties were certainly foreseeable and anticipated. I wish the Legislature would have left the common law as it existed without creating these problems by enacting this bill in 2018.”
He could also have said, “I told you so.”
Wyoming already had what is referred to as the “castle doctrine” in its statutes. It states that people who are in their homes do not have a duty to retreat from an attacker and may use deadly force if they believe they are in danger of losing their life or serious bodily harm.
The Legislature created the new criminal statute that requires a judge to hold a hearing to determine if a suspect is immune from prosecution. This effectively takes a jury trial — long the foundation of our justice system — out of the equation by putting it behind the nearly insurmountable prosecutorial hurdle of an immunity hearing. Essentially the law asks a prosecutor to prove a negative — a logical impossibility — before they can seek redress for a killing.
The details of the killing of Willow are murky at best and involve a love triangle. Allegedly John was at his trailer home when he received a call from Willow threatening to beat him up. When Willow showed up at the residence with John’s ex-girlfriend and another man, John was waiting on the porch with a rifle.
In interviews with police, John and the two witnesses differed in several details about what happened next. They agreed that John fired several shots at Willow while he approached John’s trailer, but other details, including whether John’s front door was open to Willow, exactly where the victim stood and what he was doing when he was shot, were disputed.
But there’s no doubt about how the encounter ended: Willow was on the floor in the trailer, his body riddled with bullets. EMTs pronounced him dead at the scene.
The way Wyoming’s stand your ground bill was originally written by Bouchard and Salazar and backed by the NRA and WGO, police could not have even arrested John if he had “credibly” claimed self-defense. That would have required an on-the-spot judgment that would have been incredibly difficult in many cases.
Fortunately, the Legislature didn’t pass that version. But the John case shows beyond a doubt that the law they approved is a bad one.
If there is a civil lawsuit filed for wrongful death, another hearing will be held. If the court finds the use of force to be justified, it can award reasonable court costs, attorney’s fees and other compensation to the defendant.
John is presumed innocent unless proven guilty. Hopefully the Supreme Court will rule that he must be tried for first-degree murder as prosecutors determined was the proper action. Then a jury can decide whether self-defense justifies his killing of Willow.
Justice has not been served for Willow and his family, nor for John, who will live under a cloud of suspicion unless this case is further adjudicated. The public needs to hold state lawmakers accountable for their politically driven, ill-conceived attempt to change state self-defense laws.
That’s often what happens when idealogues use their undue influence to bend laws to conform to their beliefs. Sixty-seven legislators showed they were more concerned about what grade they would receive from the NRA than the public’s safety.
I believe they deserve an “F” rating and a rebuke from voters at the polls next election.