Prosecutor trumpets his attorneys’ efforts
Office has worked hard to bring closure to those affected by crime, says Weichman.
By Sarah A. Reese, Jackson Hole, Wyo.
September 8, 2010
After an uncontested election in 2002 and a total of 14 years in office, Republican Teton County and Prosecuting Attorney Steve Weichman says he welcomes a challenge this election season from Democrat and former public defender Greg Blenkinsop.
“It’s a healthy process, and it gives me an opportunity to get our message out to the community,” he said.
Weichman, who joined the office in 1989 and was appointed county attorney in April 1996, said he’s been thinking about what he stands for since learning of the write-in campaign to get Blenkinsop on the Nov. 2 ballot.
He’s proud of how hard his office has worked to bring healing and closure to those affected by criminal cases, and how work his deputies have done in civil matters serves as a model for other communities throughout the state, he said.
As the county attorney, he’s been conservative with his budget, he said.
“The only real budgetary growth in my office has been salaries, which is to be expected in Jackson in the last 14 years,” he said.
With Civil Deputy Attorney Jim Radda leaving to become 9th Circuit judge, Weichman’s staff will include three criminal deputies and two civil deputies.
“We’re holding the line with just one more lawyer than when I started 14 years ago, in spite of massive growth in the county and in the county government,” he said.
He’s also worked to reduce costs to the county in areas including juvenile justice and involuntary hospitalizations, he said.
Weichman often says he never expected to become a prosecutor.
“I’m the village stone thrower. That can be a weary job,” he said. “If I didn’t see these cases as an opportunity to make a positive difference, I couldn’t keep doing it.”
His prosecution philosophy reflects the community’s uniqueness, he said.
“Very few people who get in trouble with the law here are just fundamentally evil and dangerous,” Weichman said. “They’re just people like you and me who did something silly or stupid or ignorant or who caved in under the pressures that life can exert on any of us.”
Teton County DUI/Drug Court and an intensive supervised probation program have changed people’s lives, he said. Still, there are some cases where restorative justice isn’t an option.
“You can’t seek healing and closure in every case, even when the defendant is just another person like the rest of us,” he said. “Sometimes there is no other way out but the hard way. When innocent civilians die, things get a little less flexible.”
Some cases can be polarizing, Weichman admitted when asked about Stephen Westmoreland.
Westmoreland claimed he shot a grizzly in self-defense last fall, but he was convicted by a jury of six earlier this year of illegally taking the bruin.
“It was not the kind of controversy a prosecutor looks forward to, especially in an election year,” Weichman said.
But the law needed to be followed.
“It was just simply a case of a bad shot,” he said. “I put hunters on that jury and a rancher, an outfitter and a ski patroller. I wanted to make sure that those value judgments were being made by a good cross-section of this community.”
Weichman said the message wasn’t that you can’t shoot a grizzly bear.
“I think the message from that case is that if you’re going to justify a shooting by self-defense, the facts need to support that assertion,” he said.
On land-use matters, Weichman said his office has worked hard for years to uphold the regulations passed by Teton County commissioners. With “explosive” growth came increased litigation, he said.
“Civil litigation was crazy wild over land use,” he said. “Every time someone wanted to build a doghouse, the commissioners would get sued if they said no, and they would get sued if they said yes.”
Weichman’s attorneys defend the county as appeals make their way through 9th District Court.
“We established a clear contested case procedure for administrative appeals of agency action, and that has become a model that has been borrowed from by a lot of other jurisdictions in Wyoming who saw growth after we did,” Weichman said.
Attorneys from his office frequently are asked to speak at state government gatherings, and their help is sought by officials in communities throughout the state, he said.
“We laid the foundation for land use law in Wyoming, and some of our Supreme Court appeals are cutting-edge nationally,” he said.
Weichman’s office also established written policies on open meetings and has encouraged other agencies to follow them.
“I think we have been able to head off a great deal of civil litigation at the pass,” he said.
For three years, all Wyoming counties have received funding from the state for the costs of prosecution because of an effort that began in his office, he said.
“We started asking ourselves, ‘Why does the county have to pay for this when we file charges on behalf of the state and we’re enforcing state law?’ ” Weichman said.
Gov. Dave Freudenthal agreed and supported a bill that provided funding. Last year, the Teton County attorney’s office received about $222,000 because of the legislation, Weichman said.
And while Weichman admitted some relationships between his office and other agencies have been marked by poor communication, he looked forward to the future.
“I’m not necessarily asserting clean hands,” Weichman said. “I’m just saying communication is essential to good government and, boy, I’ve been guilty of bad communication and I’ve learned some hard lessons because of that.”
Jackson Police Chief Todd Smith and Teton County Sheriff Jim Whalen are incredible communicators, he said.
“With Tim Day and Jim Radda on the bench and Smith and Whalen running their agencies, I’m really looking forward to the next four years,” he said.