CHEYENNE — Despite an objection by the Laramie County district attorney, the trial of a man accused of killing a local 2-year-old and putting his body in a dumpster was reset for a second time Monday afternoon.
Following a motion filed by state public defender Diane Lozano and public defender Brandon Booth on behalf of Wyatt Dean Lamb, Laramie County District Judge Steven Sharpe reset the jury trial for Feb. 6, 2023.
Lozano and Booth argued they needed more time to find particular experts, including a forensic pathologist, which they said is “crucial” to Lamb’s defense.
The severity of the charges, the “voluminous” amount of evidence and a shortage of attorneys in the Office of the State Public Defender also contributed to their request for more time.
A jury trial in the case was initially set for Jan. 4 of this year after Lamb pleaded not guilty last August. The trial was later reset to Aug. 2, 2022.
Laramie County DA Leigh Anne Manlove objected to the continuance. She said the state had filed its pre-trial memorandum – a summary of the prosecution’s planned arguments and potential witnesses – in December, and that they were ready to go to trial.
In an interview Tuesday, Manlove said she also objected to the continuance because she believes the decision to push the trial to early next year may privilege Lamb.
“I will not make a plea offer in that case, and Mr. Lamb wants a plea offer that gives him an opportunity for parole, and I won’t do that,” Manlove told the Wyoming Tribune Eagle. “So the concern I have is, depending on how elections go, what if I’m not the district attorney and my (successor) agrees to give him parole?”
Manlove said that, for a 15-month-old case, she doesn’t see much difference between her requested continuance to December 2022 and the defense’s request of Feb. 6, 2023.
She said she thinks Lamb’s attorneys believe it’s in their client’s interest that Manlove is not district attorney when his case is resolved.
“They hope it’s somebody who will agree that he can have the possibility for parole, and I won’t do that, because this is a tortured, murdered 2-year-old who was thrown away like garbage, and the strength of the state’s case is such that there should never be a plea offer in this case that gives Mr. Lamb an opportunity to get out of prison,” the district attorney said by phone.
Manlove is up for re-election in November, and her current term ends in January 2023. She told the WTE on Tuesday that voters would know whether she planned to run for a second term on May 27, the filing deadline for state, county and municipal candidates who wish to be nominated through a party’s primary. Manlove was elected in November 2018 and began her first term in January 2019.
The district attorney has faced a barrage of criticism from contingents of the Wyoming State Bar, as well as Laramie County circuit and district court judges and some former employees.
This was first reported last June, when the Office of Bar Counsel filed a formal disciplinary complaint with its Board of Professional Responsibility alleging mishandling of certain cases, inappropriate dismissals of cases and a toxic work environment fostered by Manlove. This was followed by a second formal charge against the district attorney, which was filed in October.
After an eight-day hearing this past February, the three-person panel appointed by the BPR recommended Manlove be disbarred for allegedly violating multiple rules of conduct for attorneys. The disciplinary case is ultimately in the hands of the Wyoming Supreme Court, which may not make a decision for several more months.
Hearing Judge Sharpe noted early in Monday’s hearing that the outcome of the November election is an unknown.
Manlove asked if Lamb’s trial could be scheduled for December, and if Sharpe did not have time for it, that the jury trial be reassigned to another Laramie County District Court judge. Manlove said during the hearing that she’d asked prosecutors around the state whether they’d be willing to take on the case. She told Sharpe none were.
During Tuesday’s interview, the DA attributed this to a statewide shortage of prosecuting attorneys.
Lozano, during the court hearing, said a domestic violence jury trial in which Lamb is the defendant had already been reset to Feb. 20, 2023, by Laramie County District Judge Catherine Rogers.
Should Lamb be convicted of murder or child abuse, any potential sentence would likely “engulf” that of a domestic violence conviction, Lozano said. She added that Lamb did not want to go to trial in the domestic violence case.
A phone call to Lozano was not returned Tuesday afternoon.
One legal expert said Tuesday he had never heard of an upcoming election being cited as an argument for a court to schedule consideration of a case during a certain time period.
“It was the first that I ever heard of something like that,” said the University of Wyoming’s Darrell Jackson. A former local and federal prosecutor in the Washington, D.C., area, he said that front-line prosecuting attorneys do not tend to turn over even when their boss leaves.
“For all of the high-level first-tier officials like that, their line doesn’t necessarily change just because they change,” Jackson said. “They usually have a cadre of attorneys working underneath them.”
Nonetheless, there are valid reasons for the government to oppose delaying a trial, according to Jackson, a UW professor of law and director of the Prosecution Assistance Program.
With the passage of time, evidence can get lost, or may be hard to keep track of. And people’s memories fade.
“With each day, people’s memory gets worse, and with each day, evidence (is more likely to have) problems,” Jackson said by phone Tuesday. “With each continuance, the percentage and likelihood of those issues coming up gets bigger and bigger and bigger.”
Lamb pleaded not guilty in August to first-degree murder as well as to 10 felony counts of child abuse with injury. The murder charge carries a maximum sentence of life in prison or death, with each child abuse charge carrying a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison or a $10,000 fine.
There was no discussion of bond at Monday’s hearing.
Lamb’s bond was set at $1 million cash in the murder case at his initial appearance last June, and he remains in custody at the Laramie County jail.
The 2-year-old victim in the case, Athian Rivera, was reported missing by his mother, Kassandra Orona, at around 1 p.m. on Feb. 19, 2021. His body was discovered around 3 that afternoon in a dumpster just outside an entrance to Orona’s apartment, located in the 400 block of Desmet Drive.
The toddler died from brain swelling caused by blunt force trauma, restriction of oxygen or both, according to a probable cause affidavit filed in the case.
Laramie County Coroner Rebecca Reid determined Athian died between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. on Feb. 19. His body was wrapped in a fitted bed sheet and a blanket, which were inside five black plastic trash bags, according to the affidavit.
Forensic pathologist James Wilkerson noted “scattered blunt force injuries over much of the body,” including multiple contusions and abrasions, as well as burn marks on the toddler’s genitals, upper legs and groin area consistent with a handheld torch found at Orona’s apartment, according to an autopsy conducted by Reid and Wilkerson.
Wilkerson issued the autopsy report, signed on May 6, which ruled Athian’s death a homicide.
He advised Reid that the cause of death was cerebral edema with herniation, with three contributing factors: blunt force injuries, suffocation and thermal injuries. He said Athian was the victim of “non-accidental trauma,” according to the affidavit.
Wilkerson also observed complete or partial collapse of a lung or lung area, which he said was caused by suffocation or manual strangulation.
The autopsy, conducted Feb. 20, 2021, was observed by two detectives with the Cheyenne Police Department.
Lamb was identified as a suspect in Athian’s death by CPD on Feb. 23, 2021. That is when the department announced it had recommended charges of murder and aggravated child abuse against Lamb to the Laramie County District Attorney’s Office.
Bond conditions set in March 2020 in a separate case by a Laramie County Circuit Court judge prohibited Lamb from having contact with Orona and from being within one block of her home, according to court documents. Lamb was charged with felony strangulation of a household member, misdemeanor property destruction and interference with a peace officer after an incident involving Orona.
On March 4, 2021, Lamb entered a denial to two bond revocation accusations filed by the state, including that he violated his bond conditions in the strangulation case by living with Orona since August 2020.