SUBLETTE COUNTY – After considering arguments in a former sheriff’s appeal against four 2017 convictions, on Aug. 1 the Wyoming Supreme Court ordered his acquittal of one felony and upheld three other verdicts.
It also denied his argument that a biased juror’s note was enough to deprive Stephen R. Haskell, of Big Piney, of a fair trial.
Justice Lynne J. Boomgaarden wrote the court’s opinion for Haskell’s appeal, which challenged his jury trial convictions of three felonies – obtaining property by false pretenses, wrongfully taking or disposing of property and false swearing – and the misdemeanor of acting as a public officer before qualifying.
His prison sentences were suspended one year ago and he reported for supervised probation while his appeal went through the Wyoming Supreme Court. Oral arguments were heard on April 17.
Haskell swept the August 2014 Sublette County primary against incumbent Dave Lankford and he was elected in November. His purchase of new uniforms before being sworn in the following January and other subsequent purchases were investigated by the Wyoming Division of Criminal Investigation, resulting in five charges filed in 2016.
Prosecution was turned over to Natrona County District Attorney Michael Blonigen and Fifth District Judge Steven Cranfill presided over the 2017 trial in Pinedale’s Ninth District Court. The judge dismissed a fifth misdemeanor charge after the prosecution rested.
Haskell’s successful appeal of his “obtaining property by false pretenses” conviction was based on the Supreme Court’s 2017 finding in the appeal of former Albany County attorney Richard Bohling. In spite of the Wyoming Attorney General’s Office argument that the justices erred in that decision, they again ruled that Haskell, like Bohling, had never obtained or had title to the property in question.
“Mr. Haskell’s conviction suffers from the same lack of defense,” the justice wrote of the Bohling decision. “… Therefore, we reverse Mr. Haskell’s conviction for obtaining property by false pretenses and remand it with instructions to enter a judgment of acquittal on that conviction.”
Because they were overturning that conviction, the opinion states, the justices chose not to review Haskell’s argument about a trial court error in jury instructions for that charge.
Haskell also asked the court to overturn his misdemeanor conviction of performing as a public officer before taking his oath – ordering uniforms and other supplies for the Sublette County Sheriff’s Office. His appeal raised the argument that buying items for the sheriff’s office is not necessarily a duty of the sheriff.
Haskell’s attorneys Tim Newcomb and Michael Bennett referred to the Wyoming Legislature’s amendment to a state law allowing an elected official leeway with expenses for “training and similar minor preparations” before taking office.
“We decline Mr. Haskell’s request to deem his actions prior to taking office as ‘minor preparations,’” the opinion states. “First, the Legislature added this language after Mr. Haskell allegedly violated (the state law). Second, even if we did apply the new language to this case, the plain meaning of ‘minor preparation for taking office’ would not include purchasing over $10,000 of new uniforms and related items before being sworn in.”
At trial, Haskell had testified that he wanted he and his command staff to appear in new uniforms at his January swearing-in. In the Supreme Court opinion, justices consider as “fact” that Haskell met with two county commissioners after the election in early November.
“The three men discussed the sheriff-elect’s plans, including purchasing new uniforms, but the commissioners did not explicitly or implicitly authorize Mr. Haskell to order any uniforms,” it says. Evidence was sufficient for the jury to conclude he performed a duty of his office before he was sworn in, the justices determined.
As for submitting false claims and Haskell’s argument that the county did receive the items he ordered, the appeal “does not connect or support these arguments with any pertinent authority.” “Without cogent argument or citation to pertinent authority,” the justices declined to “frame the issues for the litigants.” They affirmed that conviction as well.
Haskell also argued he was denied a fair trial because of cumulative errors that included a juror or jury prejudiced against him before his defense was presented at trial. “Cumulative errors” would be two or more “individually harmless errors” that could prejudice the jury, according to the opinion.
“Insufficient evidence to support a conviction is one type of error we may review for cumulative error,” it explains, but that was only one reversible error in this appeal. Because the justices chose to not debate error in the judge’s jury instruction for the acquitted conviction, “we next consider whether the juror’s note caused error.”
However, the opinion says, Haskell did not argue that the juror’s prejudiced note was enough of an error to reverse his convictions.
“Further he does not claim that his trial attorney provided ineffective assistance by declining to question the juror who provided the note. He also does not argue the trial court on its own motion should have questioned the juror,” it says. “Instead, he argues the note shows the jury members were disregarding their instruction to dispassionately consider and weigh the evidence.
“Yet he does not refer us to any evidence on the record supporting this conclusion beyond the statement’s counsel and the trial court made when considering whether to question the jurors about the note.”
Because the appeal did not identify “bias or partiality on the part of any of the jurors,” the justices “cannot conclude the juror’s note caused error.”
That left one reversible error – the overturned conviction – which the justices could not recognize as “cumulative error that could have constituted prejudice or rendered his trial unfair.”
Judge Cranfill retired after Haskell’s trial and sentencing; his replacement at Fifth District Court is Judge Bill Simpson.