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RPD officer not guilty in charges from last summer
Apr 6, 2012 - By Martin Reed, Staff Writer
A jury in Lander on Thursday deliberated for about 40 minutes to determine that an off-duty Riverton police officer is not guilty of being intoxicated and becoming a hazard at Boysen State Park last summer.
The jury's verdict in favor of Ron Cunningham arrived at about 7:15 p.m. and concluded the trial in Lander's Circuit Court that commenced with opening statements at about 11 a.m.
The Fremont County Attorney's Office filed charges against Cunningham after he had cut in line at a Boysen bathroom and urinated "all over the place" in front of a 10-year-old boy on July 3, according to court documents.
Cunningham's actions enraged the boy's family members and others, causing the off-duty officer to flee the area on a boat with his girlfriend, according to court documents.
If convicted, Cunningham would have faced up to six months in jail and a $750 fine. He did not testify during his trial.
Defense attorney Vance Countryman of Lander blasted the allegations against his client, raising doubts about Cunningham's level of intoxication and questioning what hazard resulted from the behavior.
"These hazards were created by an enraged group and not by my client," Countryman said in his 30-minute closing argument to the jury.
He contended that Cunningham needed to badly go to the restroom and entered the room that had a toilet used by the 10-year-old boy in order to use the urinal located directly next to it.
A photo of the bathroom displayed in court showed the men's restroom had a single toilet located next to a sole urinal with no dividing wall.
"The bottom line is men stand side-by-side to relieve themselves every day, and we create this environment in our schools, in our pools and in our public facilities," Countryman said.
"They didn't take issue if it's another boy standing in there next to their son, but if it's a man, now all of a sudden there is a great problem," he said, referring to earlier testimony.
Instead of confronting the angry crowd, Cunningham fled to his boat with his significant other in tow, his defense attorney said.
"He's trying to do what he's supposed to do. ... He is trying to get away as best he can, and trouble follows him," Countryman said. "A hazard existed because they're being pursued."
Even later, when law enforcement contacted Cunningham and his girlfriend on their boat, a park ranger handcuffed him but allowed him to remain standing on the watercraft, Countryman said.
"If he really believed or had probable cause to believe that he was impaired to the point he created a hazard, wouldn't he place him under arrest?" he asked.
Bolstering the strength of Countryman's case, Circuit Judge Robert B. Denhardt commented during the jury's absence about the arguments presented earlier in the trial.
"The evidence in this case is meager at best," Denhardt said, noting he expected stronger testimony about Cunningham's level of intoxication.
Denhardt made the comment after Countryman asked the judge to rule in his favor and grant an acquittal based on evidence presented.
"We agree with the state that this charge does not require actual harm or injury to occur," Countryman said, adding there was "no testimony as to the potential risk or harm that lurks."
Taking the request under advisement, Denhardt said testimony revealed Cunningham yelled back at the people angry with him but did not engage in a confrontation.
"He just got out of there and so the court is having the same difficulty as you as a defense attorney," he said.
The definition of hazard provided to jurors indicated an action that leads to the risk of personal injury or property loss.
Special prosecutor Greg Blenkinsop of Sweetwater County said the hazard was obvious.
"It's not a natural act for a drunken man to cut in line, barge in on a child, and urinate all over the floor," he said.
Blenkinsop attacked Countryman's allegations that the family members seeking to confront Cunningham created the hazard.
"Was it his level of intoxication or was it the angry mob, the family?" he asked.
"He could fall, he could injure someone," Blenkinsop said of Cunningham's hazards. "There are a million things that could happen when a drunk pedestrian is walking around a state park."
During testimony, witnesses who saw Cunningham cut in line and enter the bathroom used by the 10-year-old boy described him as swaying while leaning against a wall at the restroom.
Shortly after the boy alone went into the bathroom, "I then overheard him (Cunningham) say, 'Aw, hell no,' and he walked in on him," Rick Hanson Jr. testified.
Cunningham "was leaning against the wall, peeing all over the place," Hanson said, adding that he later told the boy's mother, Megan McAlexander.
McAlexander testified Cunningham's actions angered her.
"Walking in on a kid trying to go to the bathroom is wrong," she said.
Countryman asked her if Cunningham should have remained outside the restroom and "wet himself."
"If there's a kid in there, yes," she replied.
She talked about a confrontation during which she and Cunningham exchanged cuss words, but she did not intend to physically harm him.
"Yeah, I was pretty mad. Wouldn't you be if it were your child?" McAlexander asked.
"No, I wouldn't," Countryman said.