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'Not guilty' the verdict in retrial of murder convict

Feb 10, 2012 - By Martin Reed Staff Writer

Jurors in Lander took about five hours Thursday to decide that a former Daniel man is not guilty of a 1984 murder of a Jackson woman in Sublette County.

After the verdict was announced, Troy Dean Willoughby could be seen with tears streaming down his cheeks while others in the silent courtroom sobbed.

Willoughby had been accused of first-degree murder for the death of Lisa Ehlers on June 21, 1984, in Hoback Canyon between Jackson and Pinedale.

The verdict capped the three-week trial that started Jan. 23 and involved testimony from more than 50 people and the admission of 80-plus exhibits. Seven men and five women from Fremont County sat on the jury in Lander's 9th District Court.

For Willoughby, the acquittal resulted in exonerating the man whom a Sublette County jury convicted of the same charge in January 2010 and later led to the Wyoming Supreme Court upholding the outcome.

New trial

However, the proceeding was relocated to Lander after Teton County 9th District Judge Timothy C. Day ordered a new trial in light of a critical police report in the case that was withheld from defense attorneys by the investigators.

In opening statements Jan. 24, defense attorney Rob Oldham told jurors the prosecution's investigators "purposely hid police reports" that showed the defendant at home in Daniel a few hours before the murder.

Willoughby faced the criminal charge filed against him in March 2009 after the formation of a special cold case team in Sublette County led to the allegations directed at him.

Prosecutors tried to cast Willoughby as a cold-blooded murderer who gunned down Ehlers around 6 a.m. at a pullout on Highway 191 as the Jackson woman drove to Florida to be with her husband.

Lead special prosecutors Tony Howard, a former Fremont County deputy attorney, and Scott Sargent created a narrative for jurors that involved Willoughby killing Ehlers over stolen drugs from a party earlier in the night.

Testimony helped build their case, including that of two people who claimed they were in the car with Willoughby when he pulled over to kill Ehlers on the roadside.

Tim Basye testified he watched Willoughby shoot Ehlers at the pullout, while the defendant's then-wife, Rosa Hosking, testified she heard from the car his anger-filled voice before hearing gunshots at the location.

The prosecution also used an 11-hour interview with Willoughby and testimony from a Sublette County jail inmate who claimed the defendant talked about the murder in his cell.

Closing arguments

"Judge the defendant fairly. Judge the defendant by the evidence. Judge the defendant by the law. Judge the defendant guilty," Howard said at the conclusion of his closing arguments that spanned 90 minutes.

During her 80-minute closing argument, defense attorney Kerri Johnson differentiated the opposing sides as "Reality Street" for Willoughby's case and "Orchestration Avenue" for the prosecution's.

Johnson said the cold case team and the resulting prosecution involved "confirmatory bias" that funneled evidence to fit their case while excluding all other possibilities.

She also criticized the testimony from key witnesses, including Basye and Hosking, and cast doubt on their truthfulness because of claims of threats made by the investigators during interviews.

Report withheld

Johnson cited the police report withheld by the investigators from the cold case team as further reason for a flimsy case.

"What does the Orchestration Avenue investigation say? Hide the report," she said. "That's how biased they were. That's how a confirmatory biased investigation works."

She called the two investigators in particular "an embarrassment and disgrace to the judicial system that is supposed to be seeking justice and supposed to be seeking truth."

"Not a single theory, not a single motive holds up when you put it to the evidence, the Reality Street evidence," she said.

She also disputed the contention that Ehlers went to a party that was also attended by Willoughby hours before leaving early that morning.

"Troy Willoughby did not know Lisa Ehlers. Troy Willoughby never met Lisa Ehlers. And Troy Willoughby did not kill Lisa Ehlers. The only just verdict in this case is not guilty," Johnson said.

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