Court Hears Arguments in Sheridan killing

Left, Dennis Poitra (Sheridan Media file photo Courtesy of Kurt Layher)
Left, Dennis Poitra (Sheridan Media file photo Courtesy of Kurt Layher)

(AP)-A Sheridan man serving a life sentence in a 2009 home invasion killing of an elderly man was unable to control his behavior because he had taken anti-psychotic medication shortly before the crime, a lawyer told the Wyoming Supreme Court on Thursday.

Attorney Elisabeth Trefonas represents Dennis Poitra, Jr., one of three men serving life sentences in connection with the 2009 slaying of Robert Ernst, a Sheridan businessman. Ernst, 79, was shot to death after Poitra and the other two broke into his house in the night.

Trefonas argued that Poitra wasn't able to present a complete defense at trial on his claim that the medication he had taken led to his involuntary intoxication. Poitra, now 21, had been given a large dose of Seroquel, a drug commonly prescribed to treat schizophrenia, at a local hospital less than 24 hours before Ernst was killed, Trefonas said. She said Poitra went to the hospital for help controlling suicidal urges. She said Poitra was still agitated when he was released from the hospital.

Justice E. James Burke took issue with Trefonas referring to her client repeatedly by his first name. Burke noted that Poitra is an adult who has been convicted of serious crimes. Trefonas argued that it had been unfair of District Judge John Fenn to refuse to move Poitra's trial out of Sheridan, considering heavy publicity in local media and negative comments about Poitra and the other defendants in local blogs.

Trefonas said one juror was allowed to serve even after saying beforehand that he would not be able to set aside his opinions about the case. The assistant attorney general, argued that Poitra received a fair trial. He said the particular juror at issue didn't speak up later when the entire jury panel was asked finally if they would have a problem setting aside their personal opinions. He also emphasized that Poitra's own mental health expert examined him before trial and concluded that he had retained the capacity to conform his conduct to the requirements of the law but chose not to.

Regarding the experts findings, Justice William Hill said that "It seems like a very straightforward statement to me," and that "I don't know that there's much haggling with that."

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