Woman found not guilty in 2020 shooting death

CHEYENNE — Jurors found a Cheyenne woman charged in the shooting death of her fiancé not guilty of second-degree murder in Laramie County District Court.

The all-male jury reached the verdict Wednesday evening after deliberating for about three hours.

Danelle Ashley Moyte, 35, had been accused of shooting and killing Christopher Garcia, 39, after an argument in the early hours of May 16, 2020. Three children, all 13 and younger at the time, were present during the incident.

More than two dozen supporters sat on each side of the courtroom behind the prosecutor and defense tables. At the moment the verdict was read, Garcia’s younger brother stood up and quickly left the room. Gasps and sobs could be heard among Garcia’s family and friends, and several began to weep.

While leaving the courtroom, one man shouted at Moyte “You murdered my cousin,” and “You’ll burn in hell.” Others yelled insults and expletives after leaving the courtroom, and a man said loudly: “The system is f---ed up – no justice at all.”

The defense rested its case Wednesday morning after questioning witnesses for less than an hour. Shortly before, Moyte told Laramie County District Judge Thomas Campbell she would not testify.

The prosecutor, Laramie County District Attorney Leigh Anne Manlove, did not call any rebuttal witnesses nor present any additional evidence.

On Tuesday, Campbell dismissed four of the five counts brought against Moyte: three counts of child abuse with mental injury and one count of aggravated assault and battery with serious bodily injury.

Devon Petersen, an attorney for Moyte, argued Manlove provided little to no evidence to support these charges, and Campbell agreed.

As a result of the dismissals, the jury only considered the second-degree murder charge, which carried a penalty of 20 years to life in prison.

Closing arguments

For Moyte to be convicted of second-degree murder, jurors needed to be convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that Moyte “did purposefully and maliciously, but without premeditation, kill” Garcia.

In her closing arguments Wednesday afternoon, Manlove broke down the words “purposely” and “maliciously” in an attempt to convince the jury to bring back a guilty verdict.

“Purposely” means “intentionally,” the district attorney said. She recounted the many steps Moyte had to take before she allegedly shot Garcia – she had to enter the home, turn off the lights, go up the stairs and into the bedroom. She had to go into a shoe closet, where the gun safe was kept, enter the code on the safe and open it, retrieve the gun and make sure it there was a magazine inside.

Moyte had to do all of this before she stood on the second-floor balcony and pointed the gun at Garcia, who stood on the first floor more than 20 feet away.

According to A.E., Moyte’s niece, who was standing on the stairs during the incident, nothing happened the first time Moyte pulled the trigger. This means Moyte had to make the conscious decision to either take two separate safeties off the gun, or make sure it was loaded, Manlove argued.

“That was not by chance. That was purposely,” she said.

As for “maliciously,” in Wyoming, the law says one can infer malice from the use of a deadly weapon, the district attorney said.

Otherwise, malice’s other elements include having been done without premeditation, was reasonably likely to result in death, done recklessly and with extreme indifference to the value of human life, and done without legal justification or excuse.

There was no evidence or testimony that Garcia harmed Moyte that night, Manlove said. In fact, the only person who had assaulted her was her best friend on the drive to Moyte’s home just before the incident, because Moyte had been continuously accusing her friend of being romantically interested in Garcia, she argued.

It was in this state of mind – after drinking, reacting irrationally to a joke about Garcia smoking weed, having been accusatory and physically aggressive with her best friend – that Moyte entered her home that night, ready for a fight, Manlove said.

Garcia had not broken into the home that night, the district attorney said – there was no damage to the back door. Further, multiple witnesses had testified to him living there for about two years.

Garcia’s entrance into the home that night “may have been unpleasant,” she said, but it wasn’t forceful or illegal. He’d gone in to gather his and his daughter’s belongings and, based on testimony from his brother, go to his mother’s home until things cooled down, as he usually did.

Blood drops on a suitcase found in the bedroom show Garcia had leaned over it to take things out or put them in, Manlove argued.

What’s more, this posture – bending over a suitcase – would explain the angle at which Garcia was shot, she said.

The district attorney reiterated what several witnesses said throughout the trial: that Moyte and Garcia’s relationship was good when they were sober, but it was toxic when they were drinking.

Just because Moyte is involved in the community and was described as an amazing mother doesn’t mean she didn’t unlawfully take Garcia’s life that night, Manlove argued.

“She can be all the things her friends said about her, and a murderer,” she said.

Tom Fleener, a defense attorney for Moyte, delivered his side’s closing arguments, calling it a “simple not-guilty verdict.”

Again and again, he characterized the incident this way: a drunk, violent felon breaks into a young schoolteacher’s home while her two young children hide. He follows her up the stairs, and she shoots him at close range.

“Sound like self-defense?” Fleener asked the jury.

Manlove didn’t bring up Garcia’s past violent incidents discussed during the trial, Fleener said: an assault conviction in 2004, an arrest for aggravated assault in 2007, and a few incidents testified to by witnesses in which Garcia allegedly became physical with Moyte in 2018 and 2019.

“Who are we kidding? He’s a drunk, violent felon,” Fleener said.

Garcia also did not live in Moyte’s home, Fleener said – an argument he and fellow defense attorney, Devon Petersen, made throughout the trial. If he’d lived in the home, Fleener asked, why had he waited until Moyte arrived the night of the incident to enter, and why had he not been able to unlock the front door, having to go in through the back?

Despite witnesses saying Garcia had lived there for two years, and the state showing Garcia’s clothes in Moyte’s closet, Garcia’s mail did not go to the Moyte home, Fleener argued. The deed to the house and bills for utilities were in her name, and despite testimony that Garcia paid Moyte rent, no evidence was presented to show that.

Moyte is a good person, Fleener said: while holding it together as a single mom of three boys, with a full-time job and frequent community involvement, she adopted her nephew and was in the process of adopting her niece, who needed a place to live.

Fleener renewed the argument that, based on the angle at which the bullet struck the bedroom door, Garcia had to have been bent over – probably attacking or about to attack Moyte, he said.

He called into question the testimony of A.E., the now-8-year-old who was called by the state early in the trial, and disputed evidence collected by the Laramie County Sheriff’s Office attempting to show A.E.’s “line of sight” while the shooting occurred. These “line of sight” photos could not prove A.E. witnessed the shooting because the wrong side of the bedroom’s French doors was open, and objects had been removed from the hallway in front of the bedroom, Fleener said.

The danger in that home on May 16, 2020, was not caused by Moyte, he argued – it was caused by Garcia refusing to leave the home. A good man would have gotten into his truck and left, but a “violent guy” would do exactly what Garcia did, Fleener said: break into the home, follow Moyte up the stairs and into the bedroom, where Garcia was ultimately shot.

In her rebuttal, Manlove brought up that despite having her phone with her, Moyte chose not to call law enforcement after she shot Garcia, who was still alive at the time. Instead, she left the home.

The defense’s witnesses

Following six days of testimony from witnesses called by the state, and cross-examination of many of these witnesses by Fleener and Petersen, the defense ultimately spent less than an hour Wednesday morning calling three witnesses.

A previous witness, forensic pathologist Dr. Michael Arnall, had been called by the defense Friday because of a scheduling issue.

On Wednesday, defense counsel first called Curtis Burch, who formerly oversaw investigations for the Laramie County Sheriff’s Office. Burch had been a key witness for the state, testifying cumulatively for more than a day.

The purpose of calling Burch seemed to be to present a bloody suitcase found in the bedroom – the suitcase later mentioned by Manlove in closing arguments. In stills from a deputy’s body camera footage, the suitcase was shown to contain boy’s shorts and women’s sandals.

This proved that Garcia had not been packing a bag to leave, Fleener argued.

Next, the defense called Enid White, a close friend of Moyte. Moyte had taught her daughter dance and about Hispanic heritage through her Flores de Colores dance troupe, which Moyte started as a teenager.

White briefly described how Moyte had helped her daughter come out of her shell and get through some difficult times. When asked by Fleener if Moyte was a violent person, she said no, “not at all.”

Last, the defense called Moyte’s cousin, Leslie Bulow. Bulow was the second witness to describe an alleged assault by Garcia, first recounted by Moyte’s close friend, Katrina Coler, in previous testimony.

In summer 2018, Bulow was on a camping trip with her husband, Coler, Coler’s daughters, Moyte and Garcia. Bulow said she was awoken one night by Moyte, who was pounding on her camper door and yelling for Bulow’s husband.

Bulow described Moyte as “crying, shook up, frantic,” and saying that Garcia had choked her. Moyte had “pinkish red” markings on the front and side of her neck, Bulow said.

Bulow testified that Moyte had recorded the incident and played it for her. In it, she said Garcia was insulting Moyte and calling her names.

The video was not shown, as Coler testified earlier in the trial that Garcia broke Moyte’s phone shortly after.

No one reported the incident to law enforcement.

In cross-examining both White and Bulow, Manlove emphasized that they had not been able to sit in the courtroom and hear the evidence the jury had heard. She asked both if they’d want anything bad to happen to Moyte, and both said no.