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Raptor case in tatters
Prosecutor seeks dismissal of charges, saying Game and Fish did not share evidence.
By Emma Breysse, Jackson Hole, Wyo.
Date: February 13, 2013
The Wyoming Game and Fish Department failed to disclose a key piece of evidence in a raptor permit violation case, prosecutors said Tuesday as they sought dismissal of nine criminal charges.
Teton County prosecutor Steve Weichman filed a motion Tuesday to dismiss the nearly two-year-old case against Jason Jones.
Assembled by warden Bill Long, the case alleges that the program director at the nonprofit Teton Raptor Center owned 17 birds of prey when his state permit allowed only eight.
Prosecutors were obligated to provide any evidence they possessed that could have aided Jones’ defense. They did not turn over an email that could have aided Jones, however, because they did not know it existed, the motion said.
Game and Fish did not give the email to prosecutors, Weichman said in an interview.
Game and Fish permit officer Carol Havlik sent the email to Long in July 2010.
“Looks like part of the problem is my mistake,” the email reads. “I didn’t put the correct number of birds on the permit for 2010.”
The raptor center was not named in the charges. Ninth Circuit Judge Jim Radda had not ruled on the motion early Tuesday.
Jones contended that Long issued him a permit for eight birds, saying the number on it was a clerical error that would be worked out.
In May 2011, Long reported a permit violation to prosecutors, who filed the criminal charges.
Jones himself uncovered the email after filing suit asking 9th District Court to correct what he said was an error in the permit. Though Jones introduced the email at motion hearing in July, Weichman said he didn’t see it until a meeting with Raptor Center board members and Jones’ lawyer in recent weeks.
“The admission in this email is hugely damaging to the state’s case, and sadly, was obtained by the defendant through a separate administrative proceeding rather than from the state through discovery,” Weichman’s motion reads. “In light of the new evidence ... dismissal of this case is in the interest of justice.”
In criminal cases prosecutors must share evidence that might prove an accused person’s innocence with that person’s lawyers. Failure to do so violates the 14th Amendment right of due process, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled.
To get evidence they are entitled to, defense lawyers ask for it in a written discovery motion. Though Jones’ lawyers filed that request, they did not receive the “mistake” email in response, Weichman’s motion states.
Since the email strongly supports Jones’ claim that he was the victim of Long’s mistake, “dismissal is the only effective remedy” to protect Jones’ Constitutional rights, the motion states.
“I don’t believe it was intentional [that Game and Fish didn’t produce the email],” Weichman said in an interview. “But I had that document, which I should have given to them, handed to me. There’s really only one right thing to do when that happens.”
Jones said he was relieved.
“It’s been a long ordeal and I’m glad that we found a resolution,” he said Tuesday. “The hiding of the documents I think was intentional. I got them by chance, and now we have to figure out a way to have a working relationship with Game and Fish.”
Jones spoke on his own behalf and not for the Raptor Center, he said.
His statements Tuesday mirrored previous ones in court where he said he believed Game and Fish was deliberately withholding information. A Game and Fish spokesman did not pick up his desk phone and did not return calls to his cellphone Tuesday afternoon.
Center board chairman Roger Smith focused solely on the future when the News&Guide reached him on his cellphone Tuesday, though he said he felt dismissal was “a just and fair resolution.”
“We are really appreciative of Steve Weichman’s decision to dismiss charges against Jason,” he said. “I expect that the Raptor Center will be treated in an honest and timely and respectful manner by Game and Fish going forward. We’ll just wait and see how the agency responds and that’s all we can do.”
Since prosecutors filed the original charges in May 2011, the case file in 9th Circuit Court has expanded into two fat folders. At least one hearing, in March 2012, centered solely on whether Jones would receive access to documents he wanted from Game and Fish.
In July a hearing on Jones’ request to have Radda dismiss the charges against him lasted for nearly 12 hours over two days.
Raptor Center board vice chairman Porgy McClelland and special counsel Len Carlman testified that they were present when Long assured Jones he could continue operating as though he had a 17-bird permit. Long denied making those statements.
Weichman’s motion states Jones provided a transcript of a recording “wherein Warden Long asserts that the permitting snafu was a clerical error.”
Radda ultimately ruled that the reasons Jones gave for him to dismiss the case were issues to be decided at a trial.
As for future Game and Fish cases, Weichman said he believed the agency already is working to fix the holes in its system, based on his conversations with headquarters in Cheyenne.
“All I can say is when something like this happens, it has to be acknowledged in a sober, reflective fashion,” he said. “I believe [Game and Fish] has done that and they’re looking at ways to improve already.”