By Shane Sanderson
Via Wyoming News Exchange
CASPER — The Wyoming Attorney General’s office has asked the state’s highest court to review a Natrona County judge’s dismissal of a first-degree murder case tied to Wyoming’s new “stand your ground” law.
The request, filed March 18 by Assistant Attorney General Samuel Williams and Natrona County Assistant District Attorney Kevin Taheri, states that Judge Catherine Wilking misapplied the law in ruling that Jason T. John acted in self-defense by shooting Wesley Willow. The state’s attorneys also asked the Wyoming Supreme Court to determine whether courts are legally entitled to dismiss cases on the basis of the law’s immunity provision and, if so, by what procedure and standard.
The Natrona County District Attorney’s office in August charged John with the single felony after he shot and killed a man at his north Casper trailer. John’s attorney, Tim Cotton, argued that a law instituted by Wyoming lawmakers about a month before the shooting protected John from prosecution.
In the first judicial test of the new law, which expanded Wyoming’s self-defense doctrines, Wilking dismissed the case, but noted the dearth of Wyoming case law to inform her decision.
“I am the first to confess that this is my interpretation of the statute and the case law and it may well be that the Wyoming Supreme Court will interpret these issues and statutes differently,” she said at the hearing. “The courts and the litigants throughout the state of Wyoming are in desperate need of guidance on how to proceed in these cases under this new statutory scheme.”
Wilking decided to hold the February hearing after reviewing how implementation of such laws has been handled in other states and likewise determined that the hearing should require prosecutors show probable cause that John was not justified by law in his use of force. The judge ruled the new law required her to presume that Wesley Willow, who ran into John’s house before John shot him, intended to break the law forcefully and to presume John had a reasonable and honest belief that he had to use deadly force. She ruled that Taheri and Natrona County District Attorney Dan Itzen did not overcome those presumptions in the hearing, and John was therefore immune from prosecution.
In the state’s March filing, attorneys argued John agreed to fight Willow, goaded him into a confrontation and prepared for that confrontation. The state also noted that John continued firing at Willow after he was already incapacitated.
The attorneys states the law exempting a person from a duty to retreat does not apply to John because it requires he not be involved in illegal activity or be the aggressor in the altercation.
“John’s conduct — including inviting Willow to his home for an altercation, arming himself with an AR-15 assault rifle, and shooting Willow (who was unarmed) eight times — creates a legitimate question of fact concerning whether John was entitled to use deadly force,” the state’s attorneys wrote. “That question of fact should be submitted to a jury.”
Cotton said late Tuesday afternoon that he was in the process of drafting a response to the state’s request. He said that if the appeals court takes up the case, he will cede John’s representation to the state public defender’s appellate division.
In the past, Cotton has maintained his client never should have been charged with a crime.