Fremont County Officials Debate Public Inquest Into Police Shooting
Two days after a police officer shot and killed 58-year-old Anderson Antelope in front of a Walmart store in Riverton, Fremont County Coroner Mark Stratmoen announced that he would convene a public inquest.
"It is the policy of this office to convene a public inquest in the matter of any fatalities caused, or suspected to be caused, by any law enforcement agency in this jurisdiction," Stratmoen wrote in that September 23 statement.
It is unusual, but not unheard of for a coroner to arrange such an inquest. In an interview this week, Stratmoen said the inquest jury, composed of 3 citizens yet to be chosen by his office, will review evidence presented by the state Department of Criminal Investigation and other agencies to determine the cause and manner of Antelope's death.
Antelope is accused of attacking an officer with a knife before he was killed. That officer was uninjured in the attack and is on leave from his position according to local officials.
In a letter to the editor of the Riverton Ranger on Tuesday, County Attorney Pat Lebrun called the inquest process unnecessary and potentially unfair.
"The Coroner intends to act both as the Judge and Prosecutor (as well as hand selecting a 'jury'), which is in conflict with the very narrowly drafted Inquest statute [in Wyoming state law]," Lebrun wrote.
He added that a forensic pathologist has already conducted a forensic autopsy of Antelope's death.
"Dr. Wilkerson is the medical expert qualified to make the determination. [He] has determined this to be a homicide (death caused by another person) and the manner to be gunshot wound. It is a settled matter," Lebrun said.
In his letter, Lebrun urged the Fremont County Commission not to fund the inquest.
In response, County Coroner Mark Stratmoen said that the inquest is an important accountability and transparency measure.
"The best thing to do in any circumstance that is highly charged and emotional, like an officer involved shooting, is to have somebody outside the normal law enforcement and judicial process take a look," Stratmoen said.
He said that the inquest won't follow the precise rules of a legal proceeding because it isn't one. The public jury's determination will not have the power to compel the County Prosecutor, the Riverton Police Department, or any other agency's decision-making.
Stratmoen held an inquest in April of this year to review the death of 34-year-old Nicholas Garcia, who was shot during an altercation with officers from the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms in Riverton. That inquest found that the federal agents who killed Garcia "responded within the bounds of their training and followed their duty to protect the public."
Stratmoen said the process gave the community some closure, and helped them understand how a police investigation works.
"Inquests are totally public. That's the reason they were designed hundreds of years ago. It's important to have an independent and open, transparent investigation," Stratmoen said.
On Thursday, a member of Antelope's family expressed suspicion that the city might use an inquest to wipe its hands of Antelope's killing.
"I think the inquest and its purpose is to clear that officer of wrongdoing," said Dean Wallowing Bull, Antelope's nephew.
Despite the County Prosecutor's objections, Stratmoen said he will convene the public inquest as soon as the state Department of Criminal Investigation's report on Antelope's killing becomes available, which he estimated could be as soon as early December. He plans to bill the Fremont County Commission for the costs of the inquest.
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