Judge Rules First-Degree Murder Trial Stays In Casper
A judge denied a first-degree murder suspect's request to move his trial next week from Natrona County.
Natrona County District Court Judge Catherine Wilking turned down Don Johns' motion for a change of venue during a pre-trial conference on Wednesday.
Johns is charged with the first-degree murder of the stabbing death of Donald Wickersham, 49. Prosecutors are seeking a punishment of life imprisonment or life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.
Johns asked for a change of venue because a murder charge itself is publicly inflammatory, his public defenders Rob Oldham and Tracy Hucke in their motion.
Media coverage of the case is even more important, Oldham and Hucke wrote.
While reports were not extensive about the homicide at a house in the 300 block of North Jackson Street on Aug. 30, 2015, the attorneys wrote the articles falsely stated Johns had violent felony convictions in California and Texas.
As a result, he could not receive a fair trial because jurors would be prejudiced from the outset, they wrote.
The judge should move it elsewhere before potential jurors are questioned, they wrote. "Consequently, the chances of being able to seat a jury in Natrona County (even after voir dire questioning), that has not previously read inaccurate news articles about this case is extremely unlikely."
But Assistant District Attorney Kevin Taheri responded a judge cannot move a trial until after voir dire questioning.
Moving a trial because of pre-trial publicity is rare, too, Taheri wrote. While potential jurors may know about a case from the media, that doesn't mean they cannot hear a case fairly, Taheri wrote.
In the Johns case, the comments about violent felonies were made during the bond hearing and were factually reported. They were not the main part of the reporting. Such information is inadmissible at trial, too, Taheri wrote.
Judge Wilking agreed with the prosecution.
However, she denied a prosecution motion that would have excluded evidence of possible other suspects.
Assistant District Attorney Dan Itzen wrote in that motion that Johns confessed to a witness about stabbing Wickersham, whose body was found in a trash container near his residence. The victim had 29 cuts.
Johns later wrote in letters that he stabbed Wickersham, but others who stabbed him, too, causing his death.
Itzen said Wyoming law requires a defendant must offer substantial evidence that someone else was involved, and Johns has not done that. The court, Itzen added, must not allow Johns to make such allegations during the trial.
But Oldham responded Itzen's motion is premature and he is barring the defense from presenting evidence that would influence the course of the trial.
Oldham said his office recently has been receiving information that some witnesses may have changed their stories.
Wilking agreed with Oldham, adding any new information may be subject to discussion with the jury not present.
The judge also agreed that Johns cannot use mental illness, or "diminished capacity," as a defense.