Prosecutors: Casper Man Can’t Use ‘Stand Your Ground’ as Murder Defense
A Natrona County District Court judge erred earlier this year when she dismissed the first-degree murder case of a Casper man who claimed self-defense under the state's new "stand your ground" law, according to a petition filed by the Wyoming Attorney General's Office on Monday.
Jason John was charged with first-degree murder after he repeatedly shot Wesley Willow at John's home in north Casper a year ago, according to the petition from the Wyoming attorneys and Natrona County Assistant District Attorney Kevin Taheri.
John was bound over to district court for trial after a preliminary hearing in circuit court determined that a crime had been committed and that he probably committed it, according to the petition.
While the accounts vary, the case started early Aug. 3 when John exchanged text messages over about 15 minutes with his ex-girlfriend who was in a relationship with Willow. John goaded her, Willow and another man to come to his residence, and John and Willow challenged each other to fight. The three parked their vehicle, approached his residence, and Willow ran up the steps. John, who was in a crouched position, shot him twice in the chest. Willow fell down and John shot him six times in the back from an upright position.
After the case was bound over, District Court Judge Catherine Wilking held a pre-trial hearing -- similar to the preliminary hearing -- after John said he was immune from prosecution under the "stand your ground" law that went into effect July 1, 2018, according to the Wyoming Attorney General.
The law says a person "shall not be criminally prosecuted" for using "reasonable defensive force."
At the hearing, Wilking asked prosecutors to present their evidence, but she disagreed with the results from the preliminary hearing and dismissed the case.
Wilking also urged the prosecution to appeal to the high court because "the courts and the litigants throughout the State of Wyoming are in desperate need of guidance on how to proceed under these cases under this new statutory scheme."
In March, the state petitioned the Supreme Court for a review.
John's attorney Tim Cotton objected, saying the court should not grant the state's petition, and if it does, the new law only should apply to future cases and not that of John's. Cotton added the state was not totally forthcoming with the facts.
On April 16, the high court said it would hear the case.
In its petition filed Monday, the Wyoming Attorney General's Office argued that the "stand your ground" law recognizes only the preliminary hearing in circuit court as the place where the judiciary can make a decision about prosecuting a case. After the case is bound over, the Legislature gave the executive branch -- the prosecution -- the only authority to pursue the case.
What happened in Natrona County District Court violated the separation of the powers of the judiciary and the executive branches of government, according to the Attorney General, which added there are some ways the judiciary can overturn a prosecution, but they don't apply here.
"Consequently, the order dismissing the case is void and the case must be remanded for further proceedings within the appellate jurisdiction of the district court," according to the Attorney General.
Besides the separation of powers issue, the Attorney General's Office said the Natrona County District Attorney's Office established probable cause that John was a "mutual aggressor" because he dared the others to fight, so he was not entitled to a claim of self-defense. John didn't find alternative ways to avoid using deadly force, and his behavior was not legal.
The Wyoming Supreme Court has held that the justification of deadly force ends when the danger ends, contrary to what happened when John shot Willow repeatedly in the back, according to the Attorney General.
Regardless of the evidence presented at the preliminary hearing or Wilking's later pre-trial hearing, the Wyoming Attorney General said John did not act in self-defense. "As a result, the district court's ruling John was immune from prosecution and dismissal of the case was erroneous as a matter of law."
John's defense will file a response by Aug. 29, according to the Wyoming Supreme Court Docket.