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.
John shot Willow nine times with an AR-15, Stedellie said, after exchanging cell phone messages with a woman who had dated John before taking up again with Willow. Multiple rounds hit Willow in the back, the detective said, and John fired one into the back of Willow’s head. Stedellie said a medical examiner ruled that John had likely fired the gun into Willow as he lay face down on the ground.
Under Cotton’s cross-examination, the detective said Willow had threatened to beat up John when they spoke on the phone about a half-hour prior to the shooting. When Willow and two other people arrived at John’s house, he told Willow to leave, the detective testified.
After a 15-minute break, attorneys made their closing arguments. Taheri said John lured Willow to his house in order to kill him and the statute did not protect him. John sought combat with Willow and didn’t consider alternatives, the prosecutor said.
“The alternative he wants is for Wesley Willow to come over so he can shoot him,” Taheri said.
Cotton then argued that nobody was invited into John’s home and, when Willow tried to enter uninvited and looking to fight, John could protect himself.
“He is immune, your honor,” Cotton said, stressing the third word in his sentence. The judge then ruled that John warned Willow to stay back but Willow still came into John’s home. Willow instigated the violence, Wilking said, and John had no duty to retreat.
She dismissed the case and once again implored prosecutors to appeal. The decision came less than two weeks before John was set to stand trial.
The case is still a long way from finished, Itzen said on his way out of the courthouse: “It’s halftime.”