Wyoming Supreme Court Reverses Conviction in Sundance Murder Case

A Sundance woman will have another day in court after successfully winning her appeal to the Wyoming Supreme Court Friday.

Marty Smith was charged and convicted as an accessory in the death of Doug Haar in the summer of 2018. The incident stemmed from a fight between Haar, Smith, and Jessie Johnson that occurred at a convenience in Sundance following a night of heavy drinking.

Smith, who had dated Haar in the past and had just started dating Johnson, got into the middle of the scuffle, which video surveillance shows Haar to have started. Johnson intervened after Haar pushed Smith down several times and chest bumped him.

Ultimately, Johnson took Haar down in a headlock, then held him in a chokehold for several minutes. Smith was shown on video holding Haar’s hand down as he tried to point to his throat, presumably to indicate he couldn’t breathe. Haar subsequently died of asphyxiation, according to court documents.

Johnson was later acquitted by a jury who deemed he’d acted in self-defense and was cleared on all counts of murder in the second degree, voluntary manslaughter, involuntary manslaughter, and aggravated assault and battery.

Smith, however, was found guilty of being an accessory to involuntary manslaughter and aggravated assault and battery. In February 2019, she was sentenced to six to 18 years in jail, and is currently serving her sentence at the Wyoming Women’s Center in Lusk.

Now, Smith has a second chance to have a jury hear her case – or potentially have the case dismissed – following Friday’s ruling.

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The reversal is based on the fact that Sixth Judicial District Court Judge Thomas Rumpke had barred Smith’s attorney, Steven Titus, from using the defense of another plea, arguing Smith had acted in self-defense on behalf of Johnson. Instead, she was tried as the “initial aggressor” in the conflict.

In the decision released Feb. 12, the Wyoming Supreme Court ruled that the evidence was present to warrant Smith using that defense, and determined, therefore, the jury’s verdict might have been skewed.

“The decision stated with no ambiguity that when a person acts to defend another person in Wyoming, their subjective point of view matters. That is, what was going on in their mind at the time they acted matters,” said Desiree Wilson, the attorney who defended Smith in her appeal, in an email Sunday.

And because the jury did not get a chance to determine whether, from Smith’s point of view and everything she knew at the moment she acted, her belief that Johnson was in danger of serious bodily injury or death, Wilson further clarified, Smith’s actions were interpreted out of context.

Titus agreed and was pleased, he said, with the reversal of the conviction.

“I was fairly confident in the defense at the time,” he said, “and obviously the Supreme Court agreed.”

Wilson said that this ruling sets a clear standard moving forward.

“This decision clarifies that the defender’s subjective state of mind must be taken into account when a jury is deciding whether a defense of “defense of another” should absolve them of criminal responsibility,” Wilson said. “In Ms. Smith’s case, the law very likely could have been the difference between a guilty and a not guilty verdict.”

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Because the jury was never instructed on this law at Smith’s trial, Wilson added, Smith did not receive a fair trial.

Now, Smith is awaiting word from the Wyoming Supreme Court to issue the mandate to return jurisdiction back to district court, according to Wilson.

“It may be difficult for the State to proceed against Ms. Smith because in a separate trial which followed Ms. Smith’s trial, a jury acquitted Mr. Johnson of all charges,” Wilson said. “He was charged as the principal, or the main actor, in Mr. Haar’s death. Ms. Smith was charged as an accessory to Mr. Johnson.”

Since a jury already found that Mr. Johnson did not commit any felony, Wilson noted, it may be difficult for the State to now turn around and say, even though no felony was committed, as another jury so found, Ms. Smith was an accessory to that non-existent felony.

Smith was relieved and thankful to hear the decision, Wilson said.

“All along, this conviction felt to me like an injustice, and I know it did for her as well,” Wilson said. “Mr. Haar’s death was tragic and extremely sad for the entire community and everyone involved. That tragedy was magnified with Ms. Smith’s conviction. She’s pensive about what is to come, but relieved to have made it over the hurdle of the appeal and have her conviction reversed.”