Sometimes I wonder which state I would want to live in if I was not happily entrenched in Carrollton, GA. Alabama, Mississippi, Texas, and Idaho come to mind. However, if I had to make this decision based on the quality of the judiciary, it would have to be the home state of one of the greatest vice-presidents in history, the Honorable Richard Cheney. This is the grand state of Wyoming.
Recently, the Wyoming Supreme Court overturned the conviction of a Wyoming man in a self-defense shooting case that began in 2010. According to the National Rifle Association’s (NRA) website, on December 20, 2013, Gabriel Drennen’s lengthy legal odyssey, following the self-defense killing of Leroy R. Hoster, came to an end.
This nightmare ended when Fremont County, Wyo., District Court Judge Norman E. Young signed an order dismissing the charges against him. The order followed an October 1st decision from the Wyoming Supreme Court that overturned Drennen’s initial conviction for first degree murder. Drennen’s case, supported by the NRA, is important precedent in ensuring Wyomingites are able to exercise their right to self-defense.
Drennen’s initial conviction for murder evolved from a dispute with Hoster, who was a tenant on trailer park property Drennen owned. On May 2, 2010, Drennen went to the trailer Hoster had been staying at to post “no trespassing” signs, following Hoster’s failure to pay lot fees. While Drennen was putting up the signs, an unarmed Hoster attacked him, throwing the landlord off the trailer’s porch and over a fence. This caused Drennen’s head to strike the ground. During the attack Hoster threatened to kill Drennen. As Hoster was coming over the fence to continue the assault, Drennen drew a 9mm pistol and fired at his assailant, killing him. Following a trial, a jury found Drennen guilty of first-degree murder and assault and battery. Drennen was sentenced to life in prison.
The opinion issued by the Wyoming Supreme Court overturning Drennen’s conviction criticized the prosecution for misrepresenting Wyoming self-defense law to the jury. The opinion cited examples of the prosecution repeatedly mischaracterizing Wyoming law to make it seem as though it is unlawful to kill an unarmed assailant under any circumstances. For example, in their opening statement, the prosecution remarked, “there’s one general rule that shines through no matter what the scenario is: you do not shoot an unarmed man. You don’t do it.” More egregious was the prosecution’s closing statement, which noted, “We respectfully request that you go to deliberations and that you return with a verdict of guilty, because you see: in the state of Wyoming, there is a law against shooting an unarmed man.”
Citing a prior case, the Supreme Court opinion characterized the actual nature of lawful self-defense in Wyoming, stating, “It is for the jury to determine whether a defendant reasonably perceived a threat of immediate bodily injury under the circumstances and whether the defendant defended himself in a reasonable manner.”
After Drennen’s original conviction was thrown out, a new trial date was set for March 24, 2014. However, on December 18, 2013, the District Attorney announced that he was seeking the dismissal of all charges. On December 19th, Drennen exited the Fremont County Detention Center as a free man.
The Wyoming Supreme Court’s opinion in this case, and the actions it helped bring about, should serve as an important clarification on the contours of self-defense law in Wyoming (which is not identical, but is similar to Georgia law).
Further, this case should serve notice to prosecutors throughout the country that mischaracterizations of self-defense law in pursuit of convictions will not be tolerated. Following the outcome in this important case, those who exercise their lawful right to self -defense can thankfully breathe a little easier.