(Cheyenne, Wyo.) – The Wyoming Supreme Court has overturned the 2011 first degree murder and aggravated assault convictions of Gabriel Drennen in connection to the 2010 Riverton shooting death of Leroy Hoster, and remanded the case back to Wyoming’s Ninth District Court for a new trial.
Chief Justice Marilyn Kite wrote the opinion, citing prosecutorial misconduct and improper jury instructions as the reasons for remanding the case. Previously, the District Court found Drennen’s defense counsel deficient but not to the point that it effected the trial’s outcome, and the Supreme Court agreed. Drennen had been sentenced to life in prison for the crimes.
The opinion on the case was released on Tuesday, Oct. 1.
“We conclude the prosecutors committed misconduct and Mr. Drennen is entitled to reversal of his convictions,” states the opinion. “Because we are reversing for a new trial, we address Mr. Drennen’s claims regarding the jury instructions and find they are wanting in certain respects.”
The case in question revolves around the May 2010 shooting death of Hoster, which occurred during a disagreement between Drennen, a landlord, and Hoster, a tenant. Hoster was shot four times in what the defense characterized as an act of self-defense. The prosecution argued Drennen premeditated the murder.
Fremont County and Prosecuting Attorney Brian Varn and Deputy County Attorney Kathy Kavanagh were the prosecutors in the case. Neither are with the office any longer. Current Fremont County Attorney Michael Bennett did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
The opinion, citing the trial transcript, notes the prosecution multiple times told the jury that by state law it is illegal to shoot an unarmed man.
” ‘Counsel said why, if he wanted to kill someone, why would he do it in broad daylight and, you know, why would he do it under these circumstances,’ ” the prosecution is quoted saying. ” ‘Because he didn’t know the law. That’s why he did it. Two reasons. He didn’t know the law. He thinks he’s justified. He thinks he can shoot and kill someone even though they are unarmed.’ … 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.”
The record showed the prosecution objected once when defense counsel stated there was no law against shooting an unarmed man.
The supreme court opinion also noted several other modes of misconduct by the prosecution, including referring to Hoster as ‘the victim’ despite having been told by the judge to use names throughout the trial. The prosecution also stated that Drennen had assaulted Hoster first without ever presenting evidence to back up the claim.
The supreme court also ruled the jury was not clearly instructed on laws regarding self defense, among other inappropriate instructions, that Kite says should be addressed in the new trial.
A new trial date has not yet been set.