Confession stricken from evidence in December murder case

(Fremont County, WY) – The confession of Pavillion woman Bennilee Strock, 39, to the alleged fatal stabbing of husband Jeffrey Strock on the evening of December 24th, has been suppressed, according to an order released by Judge Marvin Tyler.

Strock pled “not guilty” in her January District Court arraignment hearing, and in a multi-date motion to suppress hearing, Strock and Public Defender Valerie Schoneberger requested her confession be stricken from the record, citing intoxication, unavailability of a requested lawyer and BIA officer, and alleged officer intimidation.

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“It is ordered that the Defendant’s motion to suppress evidence be, and the same is hereby, granted in part and denied in part,” reads Judge Tyler’s order.

The “denied in part” aspect of the ruling, refers to statements by the detained Strock that were unprompted, while no one was around. According to court documents, “Alone in the room, at approximately 12:27 AM, the Defendant began making unsolicited statements which are recorded on the audio and video monitoring and recording system. The statements end at approximately 12:31 AM.”

While the Defense initially argued that Strock’s .19% BAC and inebriated state showcased in bodycam footage was partially the evidence needed to prove her confession to be inadmissible, County Prosecutor Patrick LeBrun countered, “When she was being interviewed, no mania was exhibited, she was answering questions. If she felt intimidated, nothing seen in the interview could be seen as coercion.”

Taking all of this into consideration, Judge Tyler ordered that “the Defendant’s recorded unsolicited statements between approximately 12:27:00 a.m. and approximately 12:31:00 a.m. on December 25, 2020, be, and the same are hereby, deemed voluntarily given, they are admissible, and they will not be suppressed statements.”

However, confusion during the detainment interview between Fremont County Sheriff’s Office Detective Anthony Armstrong and Strock, and the fact that “The State has failed to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that the Defendant’s Miranda warnings were given to her prior to any questioning by law enforcement officials,” are what led to the “granted in part” aspect of the ruling.

According to court documents, “Between the time that the Deputy removed the Defendant from her residence in Pavillion, had her handcuffed and placed in a “caged area” of a Sheriff’s patrol vehicle, transported her to the Riverton Sheriff’s office, and placed in the interview room, and approximately 12:47 AM, when Armstrong began reading the Miranda warnings from a printed card, no law enforcement officers, specifically including Amstrong, had informed the Defendant of her status (i.e., under arrest or free to leave), and no law enforcement officers, specifically including Armstrong, had informed her of the Miranda warnings.”

The following interactions took place between Detective Armstrong and Strock during the interview after Armstrong began reading the Miranda warnings at 12:47 AM:

Armstrong: “Do you understand the stuff I read to you?

Strock: “Ummm, yeah, can you re-read it to me?”

Armstrong: “Yup.”

Strock: “Like, slowly.”

Armstrong: “Would it help you if you read it?

Strock: “Yeah.”

Armstrong: “You sure can.”

Strock: “Can I read it? So can I read it to you?”

Armstrong: “Yeah, absolutely.”

Strock: “You have the right to remain silent, yes, I realize that. Anything you say may be used against you in a court of law, okay, I understand that. You have the right to talk to a lawyer and to have a lawyer present while you are being questioned, so like when you are questioning me, I can call a lawyer right now?”

Armstrong: “So if, if you want a lawyer, then I can’t talk to you and get your side of what’s going on. That’s your right to call a lawyer, ummm otherwise…”

Strock: “But you cannot question, question me further until, if I abide to say, oh okay, I’m going to have a lawyer come in and you cannot question me anymore?”

Armstrong: “I, I guess I don’t understand what you are saying.”

Strock: “So I’m saying, if you want to question me anymore and I say alright I want a lawyer in here before you question me, you cannot question me anymore?”

Armstrong: “Ummm, if you say that you want a lawyer, then I’m, I’m not going to ask you any questions.”

A few moments later in the interview transcript:

Armstrong: “I want to get your side of what happened.”

Strock: “But, I want to tell you what happened but, but, I want my lawyer here too.”

Armstrong: “Okay.”

Strock: “You know I didn’t do anything wrong.”

Armstrong: “I don’t, I don’t know that.”

Strock: “Well I do want him to witness what I say.”

Armstrong: “I don’t, I don’t understand.”

Strock: “I meant.”

Armstrong: “Are you willing to talk to me?”

Strock: “Yeah, I’m willing to talk to you.”

Armstrong: “Okay.”

The Court ruled that “The Defendant clearly and unambiguously invoked her right to have legal counsel present for further questioning. This was ignored, and further questioning did not immediately cease. Armstrong persisted in having the Defendant give incriminating statements without the presence of an attorney.”

Due to the “unambiguously invoked right to legal counsel” Judge Tyler ordered that “the Defendant’s statements and answers to law enforcement officers after approximately 12:39 AM, on December 25, 2020, be, and the same are hereby, suppressed and inadmissible as evidence at the trial of the above case.”

The order was filed with the following caveat:

“The Court concludes that certain of the Defendant’s statements to be suppressed have not been shown to have been made ‘voluntarily,’ and they do not satisfy admissibility requirements. This ruling is intended to preclude the State from introducing such evidence at trial in its case-in-chief. This determination should not be deemed to prohibit introduction of this evidence for other proper reasons under the Wyoming Rules of Evidence. Further, the State may be permitted to introduce this evidence in rebutting certain defenses and/or in rebuttal, depending upon what testimony and evidence is adduced at trial. In the event that this evidence is sought to be presented, the State shall notify the Court and Defendant outside the hearing of the jury, so that the grounds and reasons giving rise to introduction of the proffered evidence may be properly considered on the record outside the presence of the jury.”

The follow-up trial had initially been set for July, but has been moved to a yet to be determined date in September.

County 10 will provide updates on the case as it progresses, which can be found here.

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