from the District Court of Albany County The Honorable
Jeffrey A. Donnell, Judge
Representing Appellant: Office of the State Public Defender:
Diane M. Lozano, State Public Defender; Tina N. Olson, Chief
Appellate Counsel; Eric M. Alden, Senior Assistant Appellate
Counsel. Argument by Mr. Alden.
Representing Appellee: Peter K. Michael, Attorney General;
David L. Delicath, Deputy Attorney General; Christyne M.
Martens, Senior Assistant Attorney General; Katherine A.
Adams, Assistant Attorney General. Argument by Ms. Adams.
BURKE, C.J., and HILL, DAVIS, FOX, and KAUTZ, JJ.
Appellant, John Michael Schnitker, challenges his conviction
of first-degree felony murder on the grounds that the
district court erred in preventing him from asserting
self-defense as a defense to the charge. He also claims that
the district court's issuance of sentences for
first-degree felony murder and for aggravated burglary, the
underlying felony, violate constitutional protections against
double jeopardy. We affirm Appellant's felony murder
conviction and remand to the district court for entry of an
order vacating Appellant's sentence for the aggravated
Appellant presents the following issues:
1. Whether the district court erred in refusing to instruct
the jury that self-defense could be raised as a defense to a
charge of felony murder.
2. Whether the district court erred in denying
Appellant's request to instruct the jury on the
definition of the phrase "in the perpetration of"
as used in Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 6-2-101.
3. Whether the district court erred by issuing convictions
for felony murder and aggravated burglary, the underlying
On September 26, 2015, Appellant met with the victim, Clinton
J. Gartman, and arranged to purchase an "eight
ball" of methamphetamine. Appellant gave Mr. Gartman
some money for the purchase and then waited to hear from him.
Later that evening, after spending the afternoon drinking
with his friends, Appellant went to Mr. Gartman's home to
acquire the methamphetamine. A surveillance camera recorded
the events in front of Mr. Gartman's home.
The surveillance video revealed that Appellant approached Mr.
Gartman's truck wearing a hooded sweatshirt. Appellant
entered the driver's side of the truck and began
searching the vehicle. Mr. Gartman then appeared in front of
his home holding a hatchet and discovered Appellant inside
his truck. Mr. Gartman approached the driver's side door
and attempted to open it, but it was locked. Appellant opened
the passenger door and exited the vehicle. Mr. Gartman went
around the back of the truck and approached Appellant at the
passenger door, holding the hatchet. Appellant then jumped
back into the truck, picked up a knife, and fatally stabbed
Mr. Gartman in the ensuing scuffle. A toxicology analysis of
Mr. Gartman's blood revealed a level of methamphetamine
consistent with that of methamphetamine abusers.
Appellant was subsequently apprehended and charged with
first-degree felony murder, second-degree murder, and
aggravated burglary. Prior to trial, the State filed a motion
"to exclude the availability of self-defense as a
defense to felony murder." Appellant responded to the
motion and, after a hearing, the district court issued an
order concluding that self-defense is not available as a
defense to first-degree felony murder. The case proceeded to
trial and, consistent with its order, the district court
instructed the jury that self-defense is not a defense to
felony murder. The court also rejected Appellant's
proposed instruction defining the phrase "in the
perpetration of" as used in the felony murder statute.
Instead, the district court determined that the meaning of
the phrase was adequately covered by the instruction defining
"in the course of committing the crime."
The jury found Appellant guilty of felony murder and
aggravated burglary. The district court sentenced Appellant
to life imprisonment for the first-degree murder conviction.
The court also sentenced Appellant to a consecutive term of
15 to 25 years imprisonment for the aggravated burglary
conviction. Appellant timely filed this appeal. Additional
facts will be set forth as necessary in the discussion below.
In his first issue, Appellant contends the district court
erred as a matter of law when it refused to instruct the jury
that self-defense is a defense to first-degree felony murder.
A trial court has a duty to instruct the jury on the general
principles of law applicable to the case before it. Duran
v. State, 990 P.2d 1005, 1007 (Wyo. 1999). We review the
refusal to give a proposed jury instruction for an abuse of
discretion. Knospler v. State, 2016 WY 1, ¶ 22,
366 P.3d 479, 485 (Wyo. 2016).
When reviewing questions involving jury instructions, we
afford significant deference to the trial court's
decisions. Farmer v. State, 2005 WY 162, ¶ 20,
124 P.3d 699, 706 (Wyo. 2005). "A trial court is given
wide latitude in instructing the jury and, as long as the
instructions correctly state the law and the instructions in
their entirety sufficiently cover the relevant issue,
reversible error will not be found." Roden v.
State, 2007 WY 200, ¶ 21, 173 P.3d 369, 375 (Wyo.
2007), quoting Duke v. State, 2004 WY 120, ¶
90, 99 P.3d 928, 954 (Wyo. 2004).
Knospler, ¶ 22, 366 P.3d at 485 (quoting
Gonzalez-Ochoa v. State, 2014 WY 14, ¶ 18, 317
P.3d 599, 605 (Wyo. 2014)). The issue of whether self-defense
is available as a defense to felony murder is a question of
first impression for this Court. This issue presents a
question of law, which we review de novo.
Duran, 990 P.2d at 1007.
Appellant contends that, under the circumstances of this
case, he should have been allowed to assert a defense of
self-defense to the charge of first-degree felony murder. The
heart of Appellant's claim is that "motor vehicle
burglary does not contain any element of aggression or threat
of violence." Appellant asserts that, because he was not
the initial aggressor, he did not lose his right to
self-defense. However, he also contends that, even if he is
considered an aggressor, his right to self-defense was
reinstated because he attempted to retreat before using
deadly force. Accordingly, Appellant claims the district
court erred by refusing to instruct the jury on the law
relating to self-defense.
The crime of felony murder is set forth in Wyo. Stat. Ann.
§ 6-2-101 (LexisNexis 2015), Wyoming's first-degree
murder statute. The statute provides that
(a) Whoever purposely and with premeditated malice, or in the
perpetration of, or attempt to perpetrate, any sexual
assault, sexual abuse of a minor, arson, robbery, burglary,
escape, resisting arrest, kidnapping or abuse of a child
under the age of sixteen (16) years, kills any human being is
guilty of murder in the first degree.
As we explained in Cook v. State, 841 P.2d 1345,
1351 (Wyo. 1992), "[t]he felony murder statute imposes a
form of strict responsibility on those perpetrating the
underlying felonies for killings they commit.
Richmond [v. State], 554 P.2d [1217, ] 1232
[(Wyo. 1976)]." We noted that our legislature had set
forth the crimes that would support a felony murder charge on
the basis that those crimes involved "a significant
prospect of violence":
Wyoming is among those states which limit the imposition of
the felony murder rule by listing specific underlying
felonies. The list includes those offenses traditionally
regarded as "crimes of violence." Black's Law
Dictionary 371 (6th ed. 1990). The legislature's
selection of sexual assault, arson, robbery, burglary,
escape, resisting arrest or kidnapping discloses a purpose of
providing a more significant punishment for the negligent
or accidental killing which may occur during the
commission of one of these crimes. The enumerated felonies
are those which the ...