Fremont coroner defends inquest in police shooting

RIVERTON — Fremont County Coroner Mark Stratmoen claims Fremont County Attorney Patrick LeBrun is attempting to sabotage the proposed coroner’s inquest into the officer-involved shooting that led to the death of Anderson Antelope. 

LeBrun wrote a letter to the editor of The Ranger on Oct. 17 which raised several legal concerns regarding the intent and method of the public inquest. 

Antelope, 58, was shot by a Riverton Police Department officer Sept. 21 in front of Walmart in Riverton. 

Witnesses and authorities have reported that the officer, responding to a report of intoxication at the store, was attempting to move Antelope from the public area when Antelope drew a knife and attacked the officer. 

At one point, witnesses said, Antelope plunged an approximately six-inch knife into the officer’s chest, but the officer’s body armor protected him. 

When Antelope continued to attack “with knife in hand,” he was shot, authorities said. Antelope died at the scene The officer was unharmed. 

Stratmoen has said it is the policy of his office to conduct a public inquest in all officer-involved fatalities in order to achieve transparency for the family of the deceased. 

He stated recently that Antelope’s inquest could occur around the first week of December, depending on the timeline of the independent investigation into the incident by the Division of Criminal Investigation. 

However, LeBrun wrote that the public inquest in this matter is superfluous because inquests, by law, exist to determine the cause and manner of the subject’s death, and county-contracted forensic pathologist James Wilkerson already has pronounced the cause and manner of Antelope’s death. 

“The forensic pathologist has determined this to be homicide … and the manner to be gunshot wound,” LeBrun wrote. “It is a settled matter.” 

In a written statement Thursday, Stratmoen disagreed, writing that LeBrun’s comments show “a total lack of understanding (of) how the office of the coroner works.”

Stratmoen explained that the county contracts the forensic pathologist as part of an investigation if needed; the pathologist then offers his opinion on the cause and manner of death. The ultimate conclusion, however, comes from the coroner after investigations and precipitating factors have been established, Stratmoen said. 

“The coroner can and sometimes does rule differently from (the pathologist) on manner, based on the eventual total investigation when completed,” Stratmoen wrote. 

He added that the completion of Antelope’s autopsy does not mean DCI or the coroner’s office have ruled on the incident. 

Another of LeBrun’s concerns was that “a lawful inquest requires the county attorney to be the presenter of the evidence” – not the coroner, whose duty is as judge over the proceedings. 

“The fairness problems created when the judge and prosecutor are the same person are obvious,” LeBrun wrote. 

Stratmoen countered that, although the law states that the county attorney can present evidence at inquests, “that does not mean that he can tell (me) how to run an inquest.” 

“He can appear representing a witness if that witness decides, but this is not a trial to be prosecuted,” Stratmoen said. 

Stratmoen then pointed to the first fatal, officer-involved shooting that took place this year in Riverton, resulting in the death of Nicholas Garcia, in January. In that case, Stratmoen recalled, LeBrun said the shooting was justified before the DCI investigation into the incident was complete. 

“While I could ask him to be the presenter (at the Antelope inquest), why would I do so when he has already shown such obvious bias in officer-involved cases?” Stratmoen asked. “I am disappointed that Mr. LeBrun has let his obvious bias as a prosecutor seek technical ways of sabotaging the process.” 

Wyoming Statute 9-1-804 states that the county attorney “has exclusive jurisdiction to appear at all inquests held by any coroner in his district.” 

The term “appear,” in legal jargon, means “present evidence.” 

A final concern raised is whether the Fremont County Commission will choose to fund the public inquest. LeBrun believes the commission should not approve funding, saying that, by law, commissioners may only pay for an inquest if it is “necessary” and “in accordance with the law,” and this proposed inquest has neither merit.

State Rep. Andrea Clifford (D-Ethete) announced Oct. 14 that Stratmoen has asked her to serve on the inquest jury, and she is considering the opportunity. 

Stratmoen wrote that he has worked with Clifford in the past in her capacity as a Fremont County commissioner and a state legislator, and during those experiences she “has shown her ability to consider facts objectively and then come to a decision.” 

Stratmoen also wrote that “any death involving a minority should have some peers on the jury, as a basic principle in this country.” 

Clifford is an enrolled member of the Northern Arapaho Tribe, as was Antelope, and she has pointed out in the past that there also is a Northern Arapaho tribal member on the RPD police force. 

“I do believe that if he had been the one that had answered that call, Andy would still be alive today,” Clifford said. 

In an interview with the Ranger, Fremont County Commission Chairman Travis Becker expressed consternation over the potential selection of a jury member who may be biased prior to the inquest. 

“(Jury members) should be as impartial as possible,” Becker said. “They should not have a preconceived judgment, and that is of great concern.” 

Stratmoen wrote that he agreed that “Clifford’s comments at a recent tribal meeting were ill-advised” and noted that he has not yet made the final decision about the makeup of the inquest jury. 

The coroner may select, autonomously, three jurors from the community to review evidence and pronounce the cause and manner of death in an inquest.