On December 20, 2013, Gabriel Drennen’s lengthy legal odyssey, following the self-defense killing of Leroy R. Hoster, came to an end when Fremont County, Wyo., District Court Judge Norman E. Young signed an order dismissing the remaining charges against him. The move 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 NRA, is important precedent in ensuring Wyomingites are able confidently 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, and causing Drennen’s head to strike the ground. During the attack Hoster threatened, “I’ll Kill you, you son of a b**ch.” 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 faults the prosecution for misrepresenting Wyoming self-defense law to the jury. The opinion cites 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 characterizes 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.” This is followed by the Supreme Court explaining “assertions [by the prosecution] that Wyoming law prohibits shooting an unarmed man were inaccurate.”
After Drennen’s original conviction was thrown out, a new trial date was set for March 24, 2014. Then, on December 16, 2013, the Fremont County Attorney’s Office filed a lesser charge against Drennen of possession of a deadly weapon with unlawful intent. However, two days later, Fremont County Attorney H. Michael Bennett announced that he was seeking the dismissal of all charges, citing new forensic evidence and a respect for lawful self-defense. In the December 18th press release, Bennett noted, “The law regarding self-defense is clear, requiring the state to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Gabriel Drennen did not act in self-defense.” 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. 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 breathe a little easier.