The Wyoming Supreme Court heard oral arguments Thursday in an appeals case involving a Laramie resident convicted of murdering another man.
At the conclusion of a four-day trial in March 2016, a jury found John Michael Schnitker, 31, guilty of first-degree murder, aggravated burglary and misdemeanor battery in connection with the Sept. 26, 2015, fatal stabbing of Laramie resident Clinton J. Gartman, 59, and the unrelated battery of a Bosler resident earlier that day.
During the trial, prosecutors argued Schnitker illegally entered Gartman’s truck, armed himself with a knife he discovered inside the vehicle and used the weapon to stab Gartman multiple times before fleeing the scene. Gartman died from his injuries, and a stab wound on his back was later determined to be the cause of death.
In July, former District Court Judge Jeffrey Donnell sentenced Schnitker to life in prison with the possibility of parole for the murder conviction, followed by a second sentence of 15-25 years in prison for the aggravated burglary conviction. Donnell also handed down a sentence of six months in jail, with credit for time served, for the battery conviction, which Schnitker already completed through his time in the Albany County Detention Center.
Attorneys for Schnitker subsequently appealed the case to the Supreme Court, requesting a new trial on grounds their client had the right to self-defense.
Schnitker was charged with first-degree murder under Wyoming’s felony murder rule, which states when a person is killed during the perpetration of certain felony crimes, or the attempt to commit such crimes, the people responsible for the crime are liable for first-degree murder.
In an order issued prior to the trial, Donnell ruled self-defense could not be used as a defense for felony murder but was a valid defense for second-degree murder.
Prosecutors initially charged Schnitker with second-degree murder in the alternative, meaning Schnitker could only have been convicted of one murder charge, but that charge was dropped before the case went to trial.
On Thursday, Eric Alden, senior assistant appellate counsel with the Office of the State Public Defender, claimed Gartman attacked Schnitker with an axe and Schnitker had the right to defend himself — and, if not outright, the right to self-defense through retreat, arguing his client attempted to withdraw from the vehicle but could not do so.
Wyoming laws do not directly address this issue, Alden said.
“This case presents a blank canvas to this court, which is a rather unusual thing,” he said.
He challenged the state’s argument self-defense can be used as a defense for an underlying offense in a felony murder case, meaning the specific felony leading to the felony murder charge, arguing defense makes no sense for charges such as sexual assault or sexual abuse of a minor.
Furthermore, he said, when the District Court refused to use the phrase “in the perpetration of” in the jury instructions for the felony murder charge, instead opting for the phrase “in the course of committing” from the state’s aggravated burglary statute, it prevented jurors from making the distinction between Schnitker escaping from the scene and attempting to withdraw.
“I believe his testimony would have been fuller had he been able to assert some right to self-defense,” Alden said.
Assistant Attorney General Katie Adams, representing the state of Wyoming, told the court Schnitker’s aggravated burglary sentence should be vacated because it violated his right against double jeopardy, or being punished twice for the same crime, but urged the justices to uphold Schnitker’s remaining sentences.
She said the state agreed with the District Court decision to prohibit self-defense as a defense for felony murder, arguing Schnitker’s actions the night of the incident created “a potentially life-threatening situation” and there was “no evidence” indicating Gartman attacked Schnitker.
“It just creates too much danger,” she said, further adding Wyoming laws don’t allow accidents — for instance, injuring or killing someone when a dropped gun goes off — to mitigate felony charges.
Adams also argued the jury instructions were not prejudicial, explaining “perpetrate” and “commit” are synonyms and the jury did not request any clarification on that specific phrase.
“Schnitker never used the word ‘perpetrate’ or any derivative of that word,’” she said.