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Jury misinformed, so new trial required for murder convict, high court says

Oct 3, 2013 - By Eric Blom, Staff Writer

Misinformation provided by Fremont County prosecutors has led the Wyoming Supreme Court to throw out a Riverton man's first-degree murder conviction.

Gabriel R. Drennen's case has been returned to Wyoming's 9th Judicial District Court in Lander, where he again will face the original charge of first-degree murder. A date for a new trial has not been set.

Drennen was serving a life sentence after a jury in January 2011 convicted him of murder for shooting to death Leroy Hoster, 29, of Riverton, on May 2, 2010. The original trial was in Lander under Judge Norman E. Young.

According to court documents, the fatal 2010 shooting occurred when Hoster was moving out of a mobile home Drennen owned. Drennen was present at the time and hanging no-trespassing signs around the property.

The two exchanged words, and Hoster pushed Drennen off a porch and over a 3-foot-high fence. Hoster then approached Drennen as he lay on the ground. Drennen said, "Hey, hey, hey," but Hoster kept coming and said, "Shoot me!" Drennen drew a pistol and shot five times, striking Hoster multiple times.

Misinformation

At issue in the case was whether prosecutors misrepresented Wyoming law in regard to when a person can kill in self defense and if defense lawyers or the judge's jury instructions corrected the statements. If jurors misunderstood the law, they could have returned the wrong verdict.

The state Supreme Court sided against the Fremont County Attorney's Office.

"The prosecutors' assertions that Wyoming law prohibits shooting an unarmed man were inaccurate, and the record leaves no doubt that the prosecutors misinformed the jury in that regard," Wyoming Chief Justice Marilyn Kite stated in her opinion. "In this case, the prosecutors' repeated misstatements regarding the law of self-defense were prejudicial and were not remedied by the jury instructions or subsequent arguments by the prosecutors or defense counsel."

Prosecutors asserted Wyoming has a hard-and-fast law against shooting an unarmed person, Kite stated.

She pointed to specific statements, such as one from a prosecutor who said in his closing argument " ... You see: In the state of Wyoming, there is a law against shooting an unarmed man."

In reality, state law says the right to defend oneself and the force a person can use depends on circumstances, and a jury should decide whether the force was justified, the chief justice stated.

Lawyers for the defendant and the judge did not clarify the law either, the Supreme Court decided. Kite pointed to a "glaring example" from the trial transcript.

The defense attorney said, "There's nothing in the law that says you can't shoot an unarmed man. You know ... " when the prosecutor objected.

He said the defense's statement was improper at that point and a misstatement of the law.

Young responded saying, "Let's move on, counsel."

The judge's statement likely left "the jury with the impression that one may never, under any circumstances, shoot an unarmed individual," Kite stated.

Previous appeals

Last year, Young ruled against an earlier appeal from Drennen's lawyer, Cheyenne-based Tom Jubin, that the lawyers in his trial were so poor the case should be retried. Jubin argued, in particular, that the public defenders failed to solicit expert testimony that would have supported Drennen's self-defense story, and the trial would have turned out differently had the original lawyers done so.

In October 2012, Young ruled that the defendant's lawyers were sufficient. Young recognized that expert testimony would have bolstered Drennen's case but not so much that the trial's outcome would have been different.

"Even if counsel were ineffective, Defendant was not prejudiced by counsel's performance to an extent that confidence in the jury's verdict was substantially undermined." Young stated.

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