Prosecutors may reconsider death penalty in triple murder

SHERIDAN — Sheridan County Prosecuting Attorney Dianna Bennett asked for a chance to reconsider the death penalty in the case of Dana Beartusk, who was charged earlier this year with three counts of first degree murder.

Bennett’s request came following Beartusk’s attorneys filing a motion to postpone the trial, which was originally set for Sept. 28. The defense attorneys asked that the trial be pushed to April 2021 to allow for more time to examine information provided by the state and pursue their own investigation, which public defender Marty Scott said may include a theory of an alternative suspect.

Bennett noted that in initial conversations, surviving members of the victims’ families had wanted to pursue the death penalty in the case. Bennett said in Tuesday’s hearing that due to the extended nature of some death penalty cases — which can sometimes last a decade or longer — the family members voiced their desire for a quicker process that would allow for closure.

With the request to postpone the trial, Bennett said that factor may become less relevant for the family and asked the court for permission to reopen that conversation.

Fourth Judicial District Court Judge John Fenn acknowledged the need for additional time for defense counsel to get up to speed on the case and complete its due diligence, therefore granted the defense’s motion and rescheduled the trial to begin April 19, 2021. If Bennett opts to pursue the death penalty in the case, it could delay the proceedings even further, as Scott said he is not certified to appear in such cases. In addition, Scott said the state had cut the entirety of the capital defense budget for the Wyoming Public Defender's Office.

Beyond the added nuances of a trial in which the death penalty is a factor, Fenn questioned whether the trial could be completed in five days as originally planned. Both sides and Fenn indicated the trial could last nearly two weeks, especially if COVID-19 precautions remain in place.

Bennett has filed her pre-trial briefing in the case, indicating a few dozen witnesses that could be called. Those witnesses include representatives from multiple law enforcement agencies, a forensic pathologist and friends and family of Beartusk. In descriptions regarding what those witnesses may generally testify to, Bennett noted that friends and family had expressed concern about some of Beartusk’s comments regarding family issues, multiple social media posts, the purchase of firearms and a fantasy about killing people.

Scott’s pre-trial briefing did not list any witnesses.

Fenn set a deadline of Oct. 16 for the state to officially amend its position on whether it would seek the death penalty in the case and indicated additional hearings would be set once that issue had been decided.

Beartusk pleaded not guilty to the three counts of first degree murder in May. The charges stem from a March 29 incident resulting in the death of Beartusk’s wife, Angelina Beartusk, with whom he lived, his sister Seana Fisher and her son, Mochdaveyano Fisher.

According to court documents and initial reports, Sheridan County Dispatch received a call from a Montana resident and relative of Beartusk March 29, 2020, reporting Beartusk had killed three individuals at a residence in Big Horn. Beartusk had then allegedly left the residence and traveled to Montana, where he was later arrested and extradited to Sheridan County. He remains in custody of the Sheridan County Detention Center under a $750,000 cash bond.