Murder convict says poor defense to blame for verdict, life sentence

Oct 6, 2015 By Ben Neary, The Associated Press

The Wyoming Supreme Court will hear the appeal from Nathaniel Castellanos, 36, next week.

CHEYENNE -- In an appeal that mirrors long-standing criticisms of death penalty prosecutions in Wyoming, a Cheyenne man is appealing his murder convictions, claiming lawyers from the Wyoming Public Defender's Office weren't qualified to defend him.

The Wyoming Supreme Court will hear the appeal from Nathaniel Castellanos, 36, next week.

Castellanos was convicted of two counts of murder and one count of attempted murder in the August 2011 shootings of three people at his Cheyenne home. Police found Corey Walker, 21, and Megan McIntosh, 25, dead at the scene. Another woman, Amber McGuire, survived gunshot wounds and testified against Castellanos at trial.

A jury rejected prosecutors' requests for the death penalty, and a judge last year sentenced Castellanos to life in prison without parole.

Lawyer Elizabeth Lance represents Castellano on appeal and declined comment.

Lance states in her argument to the state Supreme Court that, of six lawyers the Wyoming Public Defender's Office assigned to represent Castellanos, the first four -- who handled his case from the time of his arrest until early 2013 -- were not qualified to litigate a death penalty case. She claimed they sought to drag out proceedings despite Castellanos' objections until qualified lawyers were free to represent him.

Lance argues the state violated Castellanos' constitutional right to a speedy trial by waiting over 900 days from the time of his arrest to bring him to trial.

The American Bar Association sets guidelines specifying minimum levels of training and experience lawyers should meet to be qualified to handle capital cases.

"When the Wyoming State Public Defender's Office only has two qualified attorneys for capital cases, there is an inherent breakdown in the system," Lance stated.

Attempts to reach State Public Defender Diane Lozano were unsuccessful.

The Wyoming Attorney General's Office maintains Castellanos got a fair trial. It emphasizes that the issue of his lawyers' qualifications should be considered moot because he didn't receive the death penalty.

Castellanos' appeal marks the latest legal attack on how the Wyoming Public Defender's Office handles death penalty cases. Wyoming last executed an inmate in 1992 when it put convicted murdered Mark Hopkinson to death.

Wyoming currently has no one on death row. The last two men to reside there saw their death sentences overturned by federal judges who ruled their constitutional rights were violated when they received inadequate defense from the Wyoming Public Defender's Office.

In the most recent case, U.S. District Judge Alan B. Johnson of Cheyenne last fall overturned the death penalty for Dale Wayne Eaton. He was convicted in 2005 of murdering Lisa Marie Kimmell, 18, of Billings, Mont.

Although Eaton's lawyers don't dispute that he killed Kimmell, Johnson accepted their argument that Eaton didn't receive a fair trial because his public defenders failed to present evidence of his background and mental health history that might have persuaded the jury to spare his life.

Local prosecutors, meanwhile, are weighing the state's track record on capital cases in making their own charging decisions.

Last week, Fremont County and Prosecuting Attorney Patrick LeBrun stated that he weighed the state's overall reluctance to enforce the death penalty in deciding to accept a plea agreement in a murder case.

LeBrun on Thursday accepted a plea agreement in which Roy Clyde, a former worker for the City of Riverton Parks Department, admitted to murdering one man and wounding another this summer. Clyde faces life in prison without parole when sentenced in coming weeks.

LeBrun stated he decided not to seek the death penalty against Clyde because he saw no reasonable possibility that Clyde would ever be subjected to the death penalty even if the state pursued it against him at great expense.

Diane Courselle, a law professor at the University of Wyoming, said Monday it's hard for a state such as Wyoming to keep death penalty qualified defense lawyers on staff.

Courselle said the state could opt to drop the death penalty. However, the Wyoming Legislature has rejected that option.

"Either that, or the public defenders are going to have to spend a lot of money to send attorneys to training,"