Sentencing took place Tuesday morning in 4th Judicial District Court for the first of three murder defendants for the shooting death August 26, 2009 of Sheridan businessman Robert Ernst. Dennis Poitra, Jr. was found Guilty on September 2nd of First Degree Murder; Conspiracy to Commit Aggravated Burglary; and Aggravated Burglary. All three are felonies.
Judge John Fenn handed down a sentence of Life without Parole for the Murder charge. The Conspiracy charge will run consecutively to that charge, and is to be 20 to 25 years. The Aggravated Burglary charge will run consecutively to the Conspiracy charge, and is also to be 20 to 25 years.
A tearful Ann Ernst attended, representing her sister, Lisa Ernst Knox of Chandler, AZ and her mother Linda, who, as with the two trials held so far in the case, chose not to be present in the Courtroom. The Ernsts opted not to read a Victim Impact Statement, but did write letters to Judge Fenn, which he considered as part of his pre-sentence investigation.
Ann Ernst declined to comment on the sentence, given there are two remaining cases. Ms. Ernst was surrounded by a small support group, including Marion and Annette Reed, very close friends of the Ernst family who have been present either individually or as a couple at all prior hearings and trials.
Prior to handing down the sentence, Prosecuting Attorney Matt Redle provided arguments supporting his recommendation that Poitra, Jr. be given Life without Parole. Redle said that there are various forms of purpose that a sentencing can take, two among them being incapacitation – i.e. physically restraining for the rest of Poitra, Jr.’s life; or rehabilitation, which Redle said was not a realistic goal. Redle told the Court, “Past efforts to rehabilitate Poitra have been futile at best. It would be ‘fool’s gold’ to think that now he can be rehabilitated.”
Redle said that something to consider is the age and severity of Poitra’s first offense. He then produced three exhibits showing that history. State’s Exhibit 3, which was not in the pre-sentence investigative report, indicated that Poitra, Jr. and two others were at the Holy Name playground and vandalized items there. At the time, he had not been charged with a crime, because he’d been sent to St. Joseph’s Children’s Home in Torrington. Redle said he was bringing the incident to the Court’s attention because an eye witness had asked the three to stop, and the three threatened that they would hurt that witness. Poitra, Jr. was eleven years old at the time.
In State’s Exhibit 2, Redle referred to an incident at Meadowlark Elementary School where police had been called in response to Poitra, Jr. threatening to kill classmates and the officer. He had said he would try to take the officer’s gun and shoot them, and tried to grab the officer’s duty belt.
Also not in the PSI report was State’s Exhibit 1. On April 1, 1999, Poitra, Jr. was eight years old. He and another individual went to the Skyline Drive-In in Sheridan and threw rocks at the ticket booth, Redle said. They broke a window, and Poitra, Jr. entered through the window and let the other individual in. They found a bat and damaged the window to the projection room. Poitra, Jr. crawled through that window and let the other into that room. Redle told the court the similar MO to the August 26, 2009 entry into the Ernst’s home was “eerily similar” and should be brought to the Court’s attention.
Redle then listed several instances between 1999 and 2006 where Poitra, Jr. had a history of criminal behavior, as well as a long and significant history of substance abuse. He began using alcohol at age 11, drinking three times a week by the age of 16. He began smoking marijuana at age 8, and was using the drug every day by age 13. Redle told the Court that in fact, “the longest period of sobriety for Mr. Poitra has been while he’s been in jail.”
“And while he’s been in jail,” Redle told the court, ‘he has had two altercations – one involving property damage and one involving battery of another inmate.”
Redle then went on to say that the State did not recommend that treatment be taken into account when considering the final sentence. Between 1999 and 2009, Poitra, Jr. had been given chance after chance for rehabilitation through programs through Northern Wyoming Mental Health, NSI, The Wyoming Boys School, the Juvenile Detention Center, and even Youth Challenge in Guernsey. He was kicked out of that program after only one week. Redle told the Court that Poitra, Jr.’s discharge documents from NSI indicated that they had seen ‘no change from his abusive behavior and he displayed an unwillingness to accept accountability for any wrongdoing.’
“Why would we believe that he now is a candidate for rehabilitation?” Redle asked the Court.
Regarding Poitra, Jr.’s willingness to testify in Dharminder Sen’s trial, Redle told Judge Fenn that before giving him too much credit for that testimony, the motivation behind it needed to be considered. Redle said that “perhaps the motivation was to gain some benefit for this day. Perhaps he had some altruistic notion that justice be served. Perhaps he had an awareness that Sen’s defense was to throw Mr. Poitra ‘under the bus.’ But the Court must weigh that testimony against the threat against society should he be released. Why should some date in the far-off future,” Redle asked, “cloud the judgment of all the days leading to this day?”
Judge Fenn asked Redle if he knew of any instance where a Wyoming governor had ever commuted a life sentence that had the possibility of parole, and could there be a possibility of a future governor to commute a sentence. Redle said that what they were really talking about in a life without parole sentence is “life without commutation.” He then cited a famous quote that the “’best predictor of future behavior is past behavior’; it would be wishful thinking to believe otherwise.”
After Redle spoke, Poitra, Jr.’s attorney, Erin Wardell, said that even a life sentence with the possibility of parole doesn’t guarantee parole. She said, “We’re not here to say that a tragedy did not occur. We’re not here to say that the pain caused to the Ernst family, friends and this community is inexcusable.” She went on to say that the Court can’t just look at past aggravating circumstances, but it must also consider mitigating circumstances, such as the facT that Poitra, Jr. had a poor home life, jumping from home to home. His mother abused substances and alcohol when she was pregnant. Poitra, Jr. had severe abandonment and trust issues as a result of an extreme history of neglect.
Wardell said that he had a long and well-documented history of mental health issues, a history of cutting and hurting himself. She also indicated that he was incapable of abstract thinking, and not able to grasp the consequences of what would come from a felony murder charge.
She also said that because of his low ability to communicate well and because he was unable to show much emotion, his statement in court would be brief and probably not show emotion. She added, however, that just because he’s not able to handle any emotion, that’s “not all of who he is. I’ve had a chance to work with him for a long time; he liked the structure of the Boys School. He craved it, because he didn’t have that from a home life.”
Wardell stressed to the judge that Poitra, Jr. was cooperative, not just with his testimony at Sen’s trial, but from the beginning in his cooperation with law enforcement. Judge Fenn asked her how he should reconcile that with the Detention Center charges. Wardell said Poitra, Jr. took responsibility for his part in those two altercations.
Then Judge Fenn leaned into his microphone and said, “It took him hours to turn himself in. He went out to breakfast. With his buddies – his co-conspirators. He used the money he stole from Mrs. Ernst. You sit back and wonder how this case would have evolved if Kendra Smith hadn’t gotten involved. One wonders if this would still be an open case.”
Wardell responded by saying that Poitra, Jr. never bragged about what he had done, that he took it seriously.
Regarding the rehabilitation issue, Wardell said that “rehabilitation for Dennis is a slow process, and also comes with maturity. A life sentence is a severe sentence, and in Wyoming it is not usually just 20 or so years. Even if Dennis does all the right things, that is no guarantee that parole will happen – life means life.”
When Wardell finished, Judge Fenn told the Court that he had deliberated greatly and put a great deal of thought into Poitra, Jr.’s sentencing. He first extended his sympathies to the Ernst family, saying, “Mr. Ernst was a kind man; a good man. The Ernsts are also an upstanding family in this community, and I was particularly impressed with Mrs. Ernst at the trial. I wish I could say something more meaningful than ‘my sympathies.’”
Judge Fenn went on to say that he is “also sad to see a young man’s life ruined by the actions of his own conduct. Mr. Poitra is not one who fell through the cracks; rather, he’s been provided significant resources that are available to a juvenile – this is not a case where the system failed Mr. Poitra. I can’t help but look back in the last juvenile hearing I had with Mr. Poitra, who was sitting where he is now because he had violated probation. And just a few months later, after he’d turned 18, look where we are. It is probably alarming to consider the amount of money that has been spent on trying to correct his behavior.”
Poitra, Jr. was given an opportunity to speak. He told the judge, "I apologize to the Ernst family. They've lost their family member, but they're not the only ones who have lost. My family is losing me, and I'm losing my friends. It was terrible what happened to the Ernst’s. It should never have happened."
Dennis Poitra, Jr. will be incarcerated in the Wyoming State Penitentiary. Along with the sentence, he was also instructed to pay on all three counts $200 to the Crime Victims Fund, $10 in court costs and $75 for the Substance Abuse Evaluation. And he and the other two defendants will share restitution for $8,213.74 for a security system that has now been installed in Linda Ernst’s home. Judge Fenn noted that realistically, restitution will probably never be paid.
Dharminder Sen’s sentencing is scheduled for January 23rd, 2011. Wyatt Bear Cloud is scheduled to have a Motion Hearing Tuesday, November 30th to determine removing his Guilty Plea. If Judge Fenn accepts the motion, a trial will be scheduled. If not, Bear Cloud will be sentenced on the 30th.