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Gabriel Drennen

Other Wyoming Exonerations
On May 2, 2010, 29-year-old Leroy Hoster was moving out of a mobile home in Riverton, Wyoming, that was owned by 36-year-old Gabriel Drennen. Hoster’s Ford Bronco had a flat tire and in order to change it, he needed his tools which were in a storage unit that Hoster could not open without permission from Drennen.

Michael Adams, a friend of Hoster, drove Hoster to Drennen’s home to request access to the storage unit, but Drennen denied Hoster access. As Hoster was leaving, Drennen told him to move the Bronco and Hoster said, “That’s what I’m trying to do.”

Adams drove Hoster back to the mobile home and tried to calm down Hoster who was angry that Drennen denied him access to his tools. At that point, Drennen drove to the mobile home and parked down the road. As he began walking toward Adams and Hoster, Drennen was carrying “No Trespassing” signs, packing tape, an activated tape recorder in his pocket and a pistol in a holster on his hip.

According to the audio tape, as Drennen walked toward the mobile home, he said, “You push me around, I push you around.” At that, Hoster tossed his jacket to the ground and walked toward Drennen, hurling verbal insults. Drennen responded, “No trespassing,” and Hoster told him to “get the (obscenity) out of here,” physically grabbed Drennen and threw him from the porch over a three to four foot high fence into the yard.

Drennen landed on his back and tried to scramble backward as Hoster came over the fence, saying, “I’ll kill you, you son-of-a-bitch!” Drennen yelled, “Hey, hey, hey,” but Hoster kept coming and yelled, “Shoot me!” Drennen then drew his pistol and fired five shots, striking Hoster four times. Drennen pointed the gun toward Adams, who hid behind the Bronco. Drennen put down his gun and called 911 on his cell phone. Adams called 911 as well and both men then tried to provide emergency aid to Hoster. After police and emergency personnel arrived, Drennen was arrested and Hoster was taken to a hospital where he died.

Drennen was charged with first-degree murder and second-degree murder for killing Hoster, and aggravated assault and battery for pointing the gun at Adams. He went on trial in January 2011 in Fremont County District Court.

Adams described the confrontation and the shooting. A prosecution expert testified that his analysis showed that Drennen’s first shot missed Hoster and that the firing of four more shots was evidence of premeditation. The prosecution argued that Drennen instigated the shooting by showing up at the mobile home with a gun and the no trespassing signs.

The defense contended the shooting was in self-defense and that Hoster was the aggressor because he threw Drennen over a fence, threatened to kill him and then came after him.

In January 2011, a jury convicted Drennen of first-degree murder and aggravated assault and battery. He was sentenced to life in prison.

A new attorney took over Drennen’s appeal and hired ballistics experts to analyze the evidence—something that Drennen’s trial attorney did not do.  The lawyer filed a motion to set aside the verdict on the ground that the trial lawyer had failed to hire experts to support the claim of self-defense.

The new experts testified at a hearing on the motion that an analysis of Hoster’s wounds revealed “stippling”—evidence of gunpowder in a pattern around the bullet holes that showed Hoster was only 6 to 12 inches away from Drennen when he was shot. This showed that Drennen did not fire until Hoster was nearly on top of him, the experts said.

An analysis of the spent casings that were ejected from the semi-automatic pistol also showed that Drennen was on the ground when he fired the shots. The experts also concluded that Drennen missed with his last shot, not his first shot, casting doubt on the prosecution claim that the shooting was premeditated.

The motion was denied after the judge held that while the defense had been deficient in failing to retain experts, the experts’ evidence was not significant enough to undercut the evidence that Drennen was guilty of first degree murder and aggravated assault and battery.

In October 2013, the Wyoming Supreme Court reversed Drennen’s convictions and ordered a new trial. The court held that the prosecution had made legally prohibited arguments that included misstating the law relating to self-defense and vouching for the truth of Adams’ testimony.

The prosecution told the jury that Drennen was guilty because Wyoming law prohibits the shooting of an unarmed person under all circumstances. In fact, the court said, the right to defend oneself depends, along with the amount and type of force used, on what “is reasonably necessary under the circumstances. It is for the jury to determine whether…a defendant defended himself in a reasonable manner,” the court said.

The court also said the jury instructions given were confusing and wrong. The court did not specifically rule on the claim that Drennen’s lawyer had failed to provide an adequate defense, but noted that the failure to seek experts to support the claim of self-defense exacerbated the effect of the prosecution’s misstatements of the law of self-defense.

After the reversal, Fremont County District Attorney Michael Bennett reviewed the evidence that had been developed by the defense experts. On December 18, 2013, he filed a motion to dismiss the case. “I made up my mind that self-defense was supported by the evidence and the facts in the case,” Bennett said.

On December 19, 2013, Ninth District Court Judge Norman E. Young dismissed the case and Drennen was released.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 12/26/2013
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:Assault
Reported Crime Date:2010
Age at the date of reported crime:36
Contributing Factors:False or Misleading Forensic Evidence, Official Misconduct, Inadequate Legal Defense
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No