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Supreme Court upholds Walmart shooter's guilt

The Wyoming Supreme Court has upheld the 18- to 20-year prison sentence given to a Cody man who opened fire in the Walmart parking lot three years ago.

In a decision last week, the Supreme Court affirmed Park County District Court Judge Steven Cranfill's finding that Chester Darral Fletcher was competent to stand trial and be sentenced for his actions.

Fletcher, 66, fired five shots outside the crowded Walmart on July 9, 2007. It was an apparent attempt to shoot his estranged roommate, Clay Coleman, who was biking across the lot. One bullet reportedly grazed Coleman's lunchbox; another hit a parked minivan.

In September 2008, with a trial on a charge of attempted first-degree murder just days away, Fletcher reached a plea agreement with prosecutors to plead guilty to attempted manslaughter.

On several occasions, proceedings in the case were delayed at the last minute to address concerns of competency. Judge Cranfill, siding with a doctor and intern from the Wyoming State Hospital, each time found Fletcher was competent to stand trial.

In August 2009, he received a sentence of 18 to 20 years in prison.

Fletcher appealed his decision; in a brief, Tina Kerin of the state public defender's office argued Cranfill had wrongly dismissed the conflicting opinion of an expert hired by Fletcher's defense attorney, psychiatrist Trent Holmberg. Following a three-hour evaluation, Holmberg had found Fletcher to be suffering from a delusional disorder and incompetent to stand trial.

However, a psychologist from the Wyoming State Hospital, Dr.  Cathy Buckwell, evaluated Fletcher at length on three separate occasions and came to a different conclusion. Buckwell found that while Fletcher had a paranoid personality disorder, he was competent to stand trial.

On Dec. 21, the Supreme Court found the evidence supported Cranfill's finding of competency.

"Although Dr. Holmberg provided his qualified opinion that Fletcher was not competent, it was not clearly erroneous for the district court to favor the more comprehensive report from Dr. Buckwell," wrote Justice William Hill for a unanimous court.

Similarly, the Supreme Court upheld Cranfill's decision denying a request from Fletcher to change his plea from "not guilty" to "not guilty by reason of mental illness" two weeks before a trial was scheduled to take place. The court noted that competency had previously been established.

"There is no right to a continual succession of competency hearings in the absence of some new factor, and the Wyoming Rules of Criminal Procedure do not place a duty on the trial judge to hold hearing after hearing in the absence of some appearance of change in the defendant's condition ... " Hill wrote.

Fletcher reportedly had been upset that Coleman, his former roommate, had won a $7,000 civil judgment against him — something Fletcher viewed as a theft.

Describing Fletcher's mindset at a June 2008 competency hearing, Buckwell testified, "It was just very strong belief that you don’t let people steal from you and, you know, kind of a black and white, the law should protect you, and if they don’t, then you’re going to take the law in your hands. Kind of almost a vigilante kind of opinion."

At his sentencing hearing, Fletcher continued to indicate he was justified in confronting Coleman, though he said he hadn't meant to actually fire at him. Fletcher had requested that he be released on probation rather than being sentenced.

Buckwell wrote that during interviews with Fletcher in May 2008, "He showed fear and concern when contemplating a prison sentence, stating, ‘me in prison with all those criminals.’ ”

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