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Bennett defends action on Drennen as petition calls for his removal

Jan 7, 2014 - By Eric Blom, Staff Writer

His recent decision to drop all charges against Gabriel Drennen has stirred ire against Fremont County Attorney Michael Bennett. A woman close to the case is petitioning the Fremont County Commission to ask the head prosecutor to leave office.

"Many people believe as I do that with all of his decisions that he is going to create a disaster for our community," Kami Spencer told the county board Jan. 7. "We are going to be known as the place you want to live if you want to get away with murder."

Spencer dated the man Drennen killed, Leroy Hoster, and is the mother of Hoster's son.

Bennett dropped all charges against Drennen on Dec. 18, three months after Drennen was serving a life sentence for first-degree murder for shooting and killing Hoster on May 2, 2010. Drennen has argued he acted in self defense.

Bennett told the county board prosecutors had an obligation to provide fair trials, and he could not ethically prosecute Drennen because he had acted in self defense. The case was "a mess" the prior county attorney had created, he said.

"They lied to the jury, committed prosecutorial misconduct, and they denied a man a fair trial in Fremont County," he said. "I'll be damned if I'm going to let the vociferous few change my views of the Constitution."

Brian Varn was the Fremont County Attorney at the time of Drennen's prosecution.

The Wyoming Supreme Court on Oct. 1 overturned Drennen's conviction Fremont County prosecutors during the trial misinformed the jury about state law on self-defense. Drennen's case was headed for a new trial in the district court in Lander before Bennett dropped the charges.

An online petition Spencer started asking commissioners to oust Bennett had attracted 192 signatures as of Tuesday, three weeks after Spencer first posted it on Change.org.

The county board appointed Bennett to fill a vacancy, but it does not have the power to remove him, Commission chairman Doug Thompson emphasized at the Jan. 7 meeting.

Spencer clarified at the meeting she was asking for the county board to ask Bennett to resign. Wyoming law allows the commission to request the state's attorney general investigate a case in which the county attorney has an interest, Spencer said.

The county board should ask the attorney general to step in on the Drennen case, Spencer said.

Her biggest issue with the county attorney was that he did not notify those close to Hoster before, making decisions in the Drennen case including the choice to drop charges altogether, she said.

"He said the other county attorneys had lied to us, but at least they fought for us," she said. "Mr. Bennett thinks he can make decisions as he sees fit without regard for others."

The county attorney said he may seem cold at times, and he may even not like the decisions he has to make. He is obligated to do so, however, because he promised to apply the law equally, he said.

"When I apply the law to facts, I'm going to come up with a decision, and I'm going to stand by that decision," Bennett said. "Some people are going to be upset by that decision, but I apply the law, and I apply the Constitution, and I take that to heart."

Spencer's issues with Bennett went beyond the Drennen case.

"The Drennen case is but one example of Mr. Bennett's fondness for plea deals, when it comes to major crimes," Spencer stated online. "We regularly see stories in the media about violent crimes being pled down to lesser charges, sometimes to the point of insignificant charges."

The county attorney also had larger concerns.

"This is my community. I grew up here, and I made a conscious decision to try to move back," Bennett said. "We've got some problems, and I think it comes from the county placing its trust in a bunch of outsiders."

Bennett faced similar criticisms before. In July, former deputy prosecutor Kathy Cavanaugh called on the Fremont County Commission to oust the county attorney after he did not file charges in the death of 4-year-old Thunder Littlethunder Jr., which had been ruled a homicide.

At the same time, parents of three young adults who were shot at in Sinks Canyon in January 2013 criticized Bennett for being too lenient on the defendant in their children's case.

If Bennett does not step down, Spencer said, she would campaign against Bennett as long as it took to remove him from office, even if that meant through an election.

Bennett also made a promise about local elections in the fall, when his office will be on the ballot.

"There will come a time when I ask the good people of Fremont County to stand with me, and then we'll have our answer," he said.

Thompson said the commission would review the petition and other information Spencer provided, such as the statute laying out how the attorney general could become involved, but the county board would make a decision at a later date.

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Fremont County Commission