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Legally Speaking


Issue: February, 2007
Author: Steven R. Helling

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An Intern's First Day at the Wyoming Supreme Court

My first job out of law school was as a part-time assistant public defender in Cheyenne, Wyoming. Prior to that I was an intern. As an intern, part of my job was to assist convicted criminal defendants in their appeals to the Wyoming Supreme Court. My first case involved a woman who shot her husband and was convicted by a jury of voluntary manslaughter. The defense contended that she had been physically abused and bullied by her husband. In fact, right before the shooting, the husband allegedly held a gun to her head and made her do things that she did not want to do. He was drinking. After he placed the gun on the kitchen table and went to the refrigerator to get another beer, she picked up the gun and emptied it on him. This is my recollection of the underlying facts, although I acknowledge that it is now some 25 years later.

I prepared an appeal brief in the case. I subsequently prepared for oral argument. I remember being nervous as I entered the courtroom for oral argument. One of my mentors from the Public Defender’s Office, King Tristani, now deceased, sat in the gallery and watched.

I remember just wanting to get through my argument and hoping that it would be uneventful. The primary issue in the case involved the defendant’s theory of the case and the instructions given to the jury regarding her contention of self-defense. I think I was only about two minutes into the argument when former Justice John Raper, now deceased, arose from his seat. He leaned over the bench and started shaking his finger at me. He exclaimed, “Are you saying this man deserved to die?” I remember giving a very wishy-washy answer, talking about all of the bad things that this man had done. However, even to this day I remember that I did not say that he deserved to die.

After the argument was concluded, I left the courtroom with mentor, King Tristani, by my side. In the hallway he said to me, “You know, Steve, I think if I had been up there arguing and Justice Raper had come out of his seat and wagged his finger at me and asked me if that man deserved to die, I would have said, ‘You bet he did, Judge!’” He went on to tell me what else he would have said. He was non-judgmental. He did not say, “Steve, you should have said this.” Rather, he carefully crafted his comments in such a way that I would reach that conclusion by myself.

Mr. Tristani was a great mentor. As an intern/young attorney, I reflected upon what he said and I concluded that he was absolutely right. I should have said that the man deserved to die. Ever since that time when a judge has asked me if I was saying something that I was in fact saying, I have responded, “You bet I am judge, and here’s why.” Thanks, King.

The final part of the story has to do with another member who sat on the bench that day when I presented by first oral argument to the Supreme Court – former Chief Justice Robert T. rose, Jr., who is now deceased. In my first five or six years of practice, I was fortunate enough to be able to attend Justice Rose’s criminal and civil trial schools in Laramie. He was a compassionate man who cared about people. I remember his attempts to improve my lawyering skills and bring life to my presentations. However, for purposes of this article, I will focus on his involvement in my first appeal. I think I got beat up pretty badly. Certainly after it was over, I beat myself up. I felt badly about not saying that the man deserved to die, which was the essence of the self defense argument that was being made. It was months later when the Supreme Court rendered its decision, affirming the conviction and sentence. By then I was a licensed attorney, and no longer an intern. When I read the decision, there was a pleasant surprise, as Justice Rose wrote a dissenting opinion. The dissenting opinion provided encouragement and hope, as someone had agreed with at least a portion of my argument. I do not know whether Justice rose knew how much it meant to this young attorney to have someone agree with him about something. However, being who he was, Justice Rose probably knew. He probably could tell that I needed some encouragement. His dissenting opinion can be found in the case of Scheikofsky v. State, 636 P.2d 1107 (Wyo. 1981).

Thanks, Justice Rose. In addition, I want to express my appreciation to the wonderful people of Wyoming for many fond memories. The Wyoming Judiciary is top notch, as are the attorneys. If I were a Wyoming Supreme Court Justice and a young attorney presented a position that I agreed was correct, but none of the other justices agreed, I think I would write a dissenting opinion whenever possible, like Justice Rose. Best wishes to all.

Steven R. Helling graduated from the University of Wyoming School of Law in 1981 and spent 20 years practicing law in Wyoming before moving to Colorado Springs in 2001. He currently practices with the law firm of Harris, Karstaedt, Jamison & Powers, P.C. in Colorado Springs.

Copyright © 2007 – Wyoming State Bar