Judge clears way for appeal of murder conviction

CASPER — A Natrona County judge on Tuesday approved a man’s request to appeal his conviction for his mother’s murder, despite his attorney’s failure to meet the deadline set out by court rule.

Judge Daniel Forgey issued the ruling in a brief written order that did not describe the judge’s reasoning. Prosecutors, court records indicate, did not file a written opposition to the request.

Andrew Steplock — the 28-year-old man who will now be able to appeal the conviction underlying his life sentence — was convicted at trial last year of four counts: felony murder, second-degree murder, aggravated burglary and possession of a deadly weapon with unlawful intent.

The two murder charges pertain to the same victim: Steplock’s mother Deborah, 58. He did not deny killing his mother, but asserted at trial that a demon commanded him to do it.

In March, Forgey sentenced Steplock to life in prison. Then, on March 24, the judge filed a written judgment and sentence, which began a 30-day clock for Steplock to inform the court he would appeal the case. The April 23 deadline came and went.

It was not until mid-May that the public defender who represented Steplock filed notice of appeal. In that filing, Joe Cole, the court-appointed lawyer, wrote that he inadvertently failed to file in time.

That failure, Cole wrote, was in part due to a change in court procedures necessitated by the novel coronavirus pandemic. Were Forgey to deny the belated request, Cole said in the filing, the delay would mean Steplock was denied his constitutional right to an effective defense.

“If the court does not grant this extension, the Defendant’s recourse would be to file a writ of certiorari,” Cole said in the May filing. “Were the Defendant to file a writ of certiorari claiming ineffective assistance of counsel for failure to file the notice of appeal, counsel would have to confess ineffectiveness.”

The three documents Forgey signed on Tuesday total four pages and do not diverge from standard form. In those documents, the judge appointed public defenders from the state appeals office to represent Steplock, approved — by way of an “x” marked inside a checkbox — a request for extension of the time to file appeal, and modified an incorrect reference to the crimes Steplock was convicted of in an earlier filing.

Forgey’s determination means that Steplock will be able to file an appeal to the Wyoming Supreme Court, requesting review of his convictions and the corresponding sentences.

Online corrections department records indicate that Steplock is currently incarcerated in the Wyoming Medium Correctional Institution, a Torrington prison.