EVANSTON — The Wyoming Supreme Court has affirmed the life-in-prison sentence of Jesse J. Hartley, who was convicted in 2019 for the murder of 2-year-old Brandon Green. Since his conviction, Hartley has twice appealed to the Wyoming Supreme Court seeking relief.
Hartley, of Lyman, was initially arrested in 2018 after the death of Green, the child of Hartley’s then-girlfriend. Hartley was babysitting Green at the time and called 911 reporting he had found the toddler face down in the bathtub. However, an examination in the emergency room at Evanston Regional Hospital and a subsequent autopsy revealed extensive injuries inconsistent with Hartley’s claims.
A jury found Hartley guilty of first-degree murder and aggravated child abuse following a several-day trial in the spring of 2019. During that trial, evidence was presented indicating Green’s cause of death was abusive head trauma, commonly known as “shaken baby syndrome,” and Uinta County Attorney Loretta Howieson-Kallas argued Hartley had caused the child’s death by recklessly abusing the boy.
Third District Court Judge Joseph Bluemel sentenced Hartley to life in prison with the possibility of parole for the murder conviction and to 18-25 years in prison for the aggravated child abuse conviction, with those sentences to run concurrently. In late 2019, Hartley filed an appeal with the Wyoming Supreme Court asking that his conviction be overturned.
Through his attorney at the time of that appeal, Eric Phillips, Hartley asserted the jury should have been given alternate instructions to allow them to consider lesser charges, including criminally negligent homicide or involuntary manslaughter, and that the court erred when refusing to allow those alternate instructions when requested by public defender Kent Brown, Hartley’s attorney during trial.
Hartley also claimed that Howieson-Kallas acted improperly during closing arguments when she referenced Hartley’s silence and lack of explanation for the extent of Green’s injuries when questioned during the investigation. A brief filed with his appeal argued prosecutors are not allowed to reference a defendant’s silence or express personal beliefs or opinions about evidence.
The Supreme Court was not swayed and in March 2020 ruled the court did not err in refusing to allow alternate instructions to be provided to the jury and that Howieson-Kallas had not acted improperly. The Supreme Court did, however, find a sentencing error. Bluemel had sentenced Hartley to life in prison with the possibility of parole — a sentence that does not exist in Wyoming law. The appropriate sentence should have been either “life imprisonment without parole” or “life imprisonment according to law,” which would allow for a possibility of parole. The Court also noted that the aggravated child abuse charge was an underlying charge for the first-degree felony murder charge and therefore including the additional concurrent 18-25 year sentence for that charge was improper.
The court ordered that the sentencing error be corrected to remove the concurrent sentence for aggravated child abuse and revise the sentence to a life imprisonment according to law. A sentencing hearing held on June 4, 2020, corrected that sentencing error.
Hartley subsequently requested and was granted the services of a public defender to continue to work on his case. He also notified the court he again planned to appeal. In a brief filed in December 2020, however, court-appointed attorney Kirk Morgan requested permission to withdraw as counsel as there were “no meritorious, arguable issues for appeal.”
That brief stated that under Wyoming law, the appropriate time to raise any issues related to the trial and Hartley’s legal representation during the trial was during the initial appeal and that it was unlawful to raise new objections related to anything other than the June hearing to amend sentencing. Finding no errors or problems with the sentencing hearing, Morgan requested permission to withdraw, stating, “… an attorney, whether appointed or paid, is under an ethical obligation to refuse to prosecute a frivolous appeal.”
Hartley then continued his pro se appeal, meaning he represented himself without an attorney. In his pro se brief filed earlier this month, Hartley presented several arguments. First, he stated the court erred during trial by allowing the word “recklessly” to be used to describe the behaviors that resulted in Green’s death rather than “intentionally.” Hartley argued that a first-degree murder conviction based on the underlying charge of aggravated child abuse would need to prove that he intended to kill the boy.
Additionally, Hartley argued his appellant counsel, Eric Phillips, had erred by failing to raise the issues regarding intent during the initial appeal. Finally, he argued his initial public defender, Kent Brown, had erred by not requesting financial assistance from the state to hire a medical expert to refute the testimony of both the pediatrician and the medical examiner who testified during the trial. As a basis for the latter argument, Hartley included evidence he stated demonstrated a lack of consensus in the medical community as to the nature of abusive head trauma.
The court issued its ruling on Feb. 18, which stated, “to the extent appellant, in his pro se brief, seeks to challenge his convictions, such claims could have and should have been made in his direct appeal from his convictions.” The Supreme Court affirmed the Third District Court’s “2nd Amended Judgment and Sentence,” which imposed a sentence of life as a matter of law for the first-degree murder conviction and imposed no sentence for the aggravated child abuse conviction as punishment for that conviction was “fully addressed” in the sentence for the murder charge.