Bennett describes reasoning behind charges in fatal attack on rec trail

Sep 28, 2013 By Eric Blom, Staff Writer

Fremont County Attorney Michael Bennett said he thinks second-degree murder is the correct charge for the two teens arrested in the Rails to Trails attack that left one man dead and one woman critically injured.

Bennett's office has accused John Potter, 15, of Riverton, and Santana Mendoza, 16, of Riverton, of killing David Ronald Moss Jr., 25, and beating unconscious Aleeah Crispin. The incident took place Sept. 3 along the recreation path on the edge of Riverton.

Prosecutors have filed one count of second-degree murder and one count of attempted second-degree murder against each boy. The teens are being charged as adults.

Premeditated malice

For a charge of first-degree murder under Wyoming law, the accused must act purposely and "with premeditated malice." Second-degree murder does not require forethought, only malice and purpose.

Bennett agreed the facts of the case might show premeditation.

At a hearing Sept. 12, Wyoming Department of Criminal Investigation special agent Andy Hanson recounted his interview with Mendoza.

In the interview, Mendoza said he was jogging on the Rails to Trails path at 7:30 p.m. Sept. 3 when he encountered Potter, who pointed out Moss and Crispin sitting under a tree drinking a beverage. Potter said he wanted to beat up the two victims because they had insulted the boys' families.

Mendoza then watched the two victims while Potter went to retrieve a metal baseball bat and a set of brass knuckles. After Potter returned with the weapons, the defendants attacked.

"The question that would still remain is, was that premeditation for some type of assault or was that premeditation for murder?" Bennett said.

In the end, he thinks the facts point to a second-degree murder charge rather than first-degree.

In addition, establishing premeditation with juvenile defendants is more difficult than with adults, even if the youths are being charged as adults, Bennett said.

"Their thought process is widely not recognized to be as well developed as an adult," he said.

Sentencing options also played a role in deciding which charge to file.

"(The first reasons), combined with the sentencing options available to juveniles charged as adults, there really is no difference between second-degree murder and first-degree murder," Bennett said.

First-degree murder brings a sentence of life in prison without parole or a death sentence for adults under Wyoming law. For convicts younger than 18 years old, the charge carries a sentence of life in prison.

The sentence for second-degree murder for all defendants is 20 years to life in prison.

Bennett also did not want to use a higher charge than was justified as a bargaining chip.

"My office's policy is to not overcharge to gain leverage," he said. "I'm not going to charge a first-degree murder to get a guilty plea on a second-degree murder."

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