Whitman gets new attorney, trial date
SUBLETTE COUNTY – Chett L. Whitman, 26, a Daniel native allowed to work in Arizona and New Mexico, will not face a May 8 trial for one felony aggravated assault charge as scheduled.
Whitman did not appear in person for his 9th District Court pretrial conference on April 13, instead calling in from a truck parked near traffic. He wore aviator sunglasses as he, his new attorney on video, the county prosecutor in person and a reporter waited for Judge Kate McKay to enter the courtroom.
Whitman is charged with brutally beating Chris Meeks, of Daniel, behind a Pinedale bar late on July 9, 2021, during Rendezvous. Off-duty EMTs helped stabilize the unconscious Meeks, who was taken to the Pinedale Medical Clinic and then life-flighted to Eastern Idaho Regional Medical Center’s trauma unit.
Angry citizens and witnesses gathered at the Sublette County commissioners’ July 19, 2022, meeting to question Sheriff KC Lehr about Whitman’s not being in custody. He was arrested hours later. Then-Circuit Court Judge Curt Haws set Whitman’s bond at $50,000 cash or surety, which he met and was released.
Whitman was not arraigned in 9th District Court until Oct. 27, when he pleaded not guilty before former Judge Marv Tyler, who allowed Whitman to work and travel between Arizona and New Mexico.
In 2014, Whitman was convicted of reckless endangering and stalking and served probation with a revocation on record.
Whitman removed his sunglasses at his new attorney’s request and began playing with a knife, cleaning his fingernails until Judge McKay entered the courtroom. She noted “a flurry of motions to change attorneys (and) to continue the trial,” which Sublette County Attorney Clayton Melinkovich opposed, she said.
Recently, Whitman sought to fire Pinedale attorney Rives White, who had represented him in court. Judge McKay would not approve White’s removal, even after White himself requested it on Whitman’s behalf, until Whitman hired another attorney who filed with the court.
Due to his and White’s “strained relationship,” he hired private attorney David McCarthy of Rawlins, who appeared via videoconference after filing a motion to continue all trial-related dates. Instead of a pretrial conference, the April 13 hearing turned into something else.
The judge asked to hear from both McCarthy and Melinkovich.
McCarthy argued to continue that day’s pretrial conference and May 8 trial so he could provide effective counsel to protect Whitman’s constitutional right to due process.
“Mr. Whitman and his past attorney Rives White did not have a functional relationship,” McCarthy said.
As of that day, he had no discovery and needed time to investigate and with a May 8 trial, he “could not provide effective counsel” – “an appealable issue if it would go to trial.”
Judge McKay questioned if Whitman’s actions contributed to this delay.
However, Whitman’s call dropped and after several minutes McCarthy texted him to see if he should continue on Whitman’s behalf.
“He texted he would consent to proceed without his presence,” McCarthy said.
McCarthy said Whitman called two other attorneys before him – one declined; the other was too expensive. “He had to take his horse trailer to get money for my retainer.”
He asked the judge to schedule Whitman’s trial on July 17, when Judge McKay said she had five trials “stacked” to start that date; one was being dismissed and “three are likely to go to trial.”
Melinkovich said victim Meeks’ circumstances should also be factors. As an employed ranch hand and cowboy, it would “be extremely difficult” for Meeks to wait until the middle of summer when haying season is set to begin.
Judge McKay asked to hear more about “the victim.”
Melinkovich said Meeks would be preparing to hay, fine-tuning irrigation and equipment.
“It’s a very crucial time. … Also, this has been nearly a year – justice delayed is justice denied,” he said, citing “continuance after continuance.”
“This is a very, very difficult decision, very very difficult,” the judge said. “Of course the victim does have rights in this case as well.”
Whitman waived his right to a speedy trial but the defense does need enough time to prepare for it, she said. It weighed slightly in his favor that he got a new attorney but she pondered, she couldn’t “determine” if Whitman’s own actions contributed to the potential delay.
“I’m waffling back and forth as I sit here,” Judge McKay said. She suggested stacking this trial with a June 12 civil case but McCarthy had a scheduling conflict.
She again voiced concern over having so many cases already scheduled for July 17 but she decided to add it to that day’s stack.
She asked about Whitman’s bond and travel conditions; McCarthy said he didn’t even know that yet. By then Whitman reconnected his call.
Previously Judge Tyler had not specified that Whitman should appear in person for the pretrial conference.
Judge McKay noted “a little bit of laxity regarding Mr. Whitman’s appearance in person” while working out of state. “I will make it very clear – I would like him to appear in person for the (new) pretrial conference.”
Whitman’s pretrial conference in 9th District Court is set for June 22 at 2:30 p.m.