Poitra's Life Sentence Upheld by Supreme Court

Poitra's Life Sentence Upheld by Supreme Court
Poitra's Life Sentence Upheld by Supreme Court

CHEYENNE, Wyo. — The Wyoming Supreme Court has upheld a sentence of life in prison without parole for a Sheridan teenager convicted of murder in a 2009 home invasion killing.

In its ruling released Thursday, the court rejected Dennis Poitra, Jr.'s claim that his conviction in the August 2009 killing of Sheridan businessman Robert Ernst violated Poitra's constitutional rights. Poitra was 19 at the time of Ernst's killing and is one of three Sheridan teens sentenced to life in prison for the crime.

The Wyoming Supreme Court earlier this year upheld a life sentence for co-defendant Wyatt Bear Cloud, who was 16 at the time of the crime. The state supreme court rejected Bear Cloud's claims that he should have been tried as a juvenile and should have been allowed to retract his guilty plea.

The court is scheduled to hear arguments next month on an appeal from the third teen: Dharminder Vir Sen. Prosecutors say Sen, who was then 15, was the triggerman and shot Ernst after the three teenagers entered his home with a stolen pistol in the middle of the night.

In Thursday's opinion, written by Justice William U. Hill, the court ruled against Poitra's arguments that he was unable to control his behavior because he had taken an antipsychotic shortly before the killing.

Attorney Elisabeth Trefonas represented Poitra in arguments before the court in January. She said Poitra wasn't able to present a complete defense at trial on his claim that 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. She said Poitra had gone to the hospital for help with controlling suicidal urges.

Hill wrote that District Judge John Fenn was correct to reject Poitra's claims about his drugged condition because Poitra hadn't maintained the required plea of not guilty by reason of mental illness.

Although Poitra had originally argued that he was not guilty by reason of mental illness, he later withdrew that plea after a doctor evaluated him at the State Hospital. The doctor concluded that it was probable that at the time of the crime, "(Poitra) did retain the capacity to conform his conduct to the requirements of the law, but chose not to," Hill wrote.

Hill's opinion upholds Fenn's refusal to accept a "lack of mental responsibility" defense after Poitra withdrew his plea of not guilty by reason of mental illness. The opinion also denies Poitra's arguments that his trial should have been held outside of Sheridan because of heavy publicity and that his jury wasn't impartial.

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