Justices back murder case dismissal

Wyoming’s stand-your-ground law was at issue in high court

CASPER — The Wyoming Supreme Court on Monday upheld the dismissal of a first-degree murder case against a Casper man on the basis of a new stand-your-ground law. 

The ruling means Jason T. John will not face further prosecution for shooting and killing another man in August 2018 as the man ran into John’s trailer home. 

The appellate court found as well that the law under which Natrona County District Court Judge Catherine Wilking dismissed the case — which was only a month old at the time of the shooting and had never before been tested in court — provides immunity from prosecution for those who’ve acted under the “stand-your-ground” and, like John, “castle doctrine” provisions of the law. 

Although the “castle doctrine” provision already existed under Wyoming law as a defense, the court ruled that the immunity provision means judges can consider the issue once defendants have made a face-value demonstration of their right to the protection. Prosecutors will be required at a special hearing to show by a preponderance of the evidence that immunity does not apply.

The state’s highest court found that Wilking did not apply the appropriate burden or standard of proof in making her determination early last year, but it ruled that even under the newly outlined procedure John would have been immune. 

The case dates back more than a year and a half, when John shot Wesley Willow, Jr. nine times with an AR-15 at the entrance to his Casper home. 

John had in the hours before the shooting exchanged cell phone text messages with a woman who had dated John before taking up again with Willow. 

John later claimed protection under the new law, which includes the “castle doctrine” and “stand your ground” provisions the former of which, Wilking ultimately ruled, made John immune from prosecution. 

Before the dismissal hearing even began, however, the district court judge implored attorneys to appeal her decisions, noting that application of the law had not yet been tested by Wyoming’s courts, leaving her with no local precedent to lean upon. 

Wilking said at the same February 2019 hearing that the new law did not make clear how it was intended to be implemented. 

The law, which became effective about a month before the shooting, promised increased legal protections for people acting in self-defense. 

Those provisions specify that people protecting themselves generally do not have an obligation to retreat from attackers and that people in their homes are generally considered to be acting in self-defense when they shoot unlawful intruders. 

Although the Wyoming Attorney General’s Office had argued on appeal that the law provided only direction for prosecutors and was not enforceable by the courts, the Supreme Court ruled against the state on that issue in its Monday opinion. 

Judges under the law are to serve a gatekeeping role, dismissing cases against people who exercise reasonable force in self-defense. 

“The district court correctly interpreted the plain language of (the law). Though (the applicable subsection) nowhere uses the word “immunity,” it is clearly an immunity provision carrying with it a judicial gatekeeping function to ensure the executive branch does not prosecute individuals who exercised reasonable force in self-defense. As such, (the subsection) preserves, rather than violates, the separation of powers between the legislature, executive, and judiciary,” wrote Justice Lynne Boomgaarden in the court’s opinion. 

The state’s highest court determined as well that application of immunity should not be decided during a circuit court’s preliminary hearings, which determine whether probable cause to charge a person with a crime exists. 

Instead, the Supreme Court found district court judges — who oversee felony trials like the murder case John faced — should determine at a standalone hearing whether the law applies. 

Although Wilking held such a hearing, the appellate court determined that future hearings should be held on a somewhat different basis: district court judges ought to first require defendants make a minimal demonstration that immunity law applies. Then, prosecutors will be required to show by a preponderance — or more than half — of the evidence that the law does not apply. 

Because Wilking held the hearing and dismissed the case under a higher standard of evidence, the Supreme Court found that she also made the findings necessary under the appellate court’s ruling to dismiss the case against John.