Confession rejected as evidence in murder trial

RIVERTON — A woman’s murder confession will not be allowed in evidence because she was not granted an attorney during her police interview after requesting one. 

A Fremont County District Court judge made the ruling Monday. 

BenniLee Strock, 39, had confessed to stabbing her husband, Jeffrey Strock, during a midnight interview with Fremont County Sheriff’s Office detective Anthony Armstrong, early on Christmas Day 2020. 

Strock and her husband had been drinking in Pavillion on Christmas Eve and returned to their home in that town, while arguing. 

Strock told law enforcement hours later that she retrieved a kitchen knife and stabbed her husband. 

He died of the injury, and his wife was charged with second-degree murder. 

Fremont County District Court Judge Marvin Tyler needed, in his review of the topic, to determine whether Strock’s mid-interview request for an attorney was unequivocal. 

Preceding case law allows that a confession may be stricken from the trial evidence if a suspect made an unequivocal request for an attorney before giving the confession. 

Quoting the famous Miranda v Arizona court case that established a constitutional right to counsel, Tyler wrote that “if interrogation continues without an attorney a heavy burden rests on the government to demonstrate that the defendant knowingly and intelligently waived his privilege against self-incrimination.” 

According to a written argument by public defender Valerie Schoneberger, who is representing Strock, Armstrong and Strock had a “lengthy back-and-forth… regarding her right to a lawyer.”

In that interview, Armstrong is reported as saying “if you say that you want a lawyer, then I’m – I’m not going to ask you any questions.” 

Strock, whose blood-alcohol content was roughly a .19 at the time, responded with “OK that’s what I’m saying, OK.”

In another portion of the interview, Strock asked “but you cannot question – question me further until, if I abide to say, oh OK, I’m going to have a lawyer come in and you cannot question me anymore?” 

To this multi-phrased question, Armstrong responded “I – I guess I don’t understand what you are saying.” 

Schoneberger claimed that Armstrong “confused Mrs. Strock by… feigning misunderstanding.”

Fremont County Attorney Patrick LeBrun, conversely, argued throughout proceedings that Strock’s request not to speak anymore before meeting a lawyer was not stated clearly. 

He also argued that because Strock continued speaking of her own will even after her request was made, that she was willing to speak without an attorney. 

“No reasonable officer could have concluded that Ms. Strock was demanding counsel without further clarity that never came,” he wrote in his counterargument. 

Strock had later said “What if (expletive) should go wrong, then I can bring my lawyer into it or whenever, if (expletive) should go wrong, right?” 

Armstrong answered “If you want to talk to me, and at some point you decide that you’re done, you can stop talking.”

“Oh, I can, I can tell you what happened,” answered Strock, who then asked to use the ladies room. 

Judge Tyler settled this argument by referencing the United States Supreme Court, whose justices wrote that “it will often be good police practice for the interviewing officers to clarify whether or not (the suspect) actually wants an attorney… Clarifying questions help protect the rights of the suspect by ensuring that he gets an attorney if he wants one, and will minimize the chance of a confession being suppressed due to subsequent judicial second-guessing as to the meaning of the suspect’s statement.” 

Reflecting on that ruling, Tyler wrote that it’s “simply good practice” for police to ask the suspect if her request for an attorney is unequivocal. 

Tyler recounted the events of that night, writing that Strock was “hysterical” when law enforcement arrived at their home and tried, in vain, to revive Jeffrey. 

FSO deputy Kelsi Sullivan had testified that Strock interfered with paramedic efforts, and Sullivan asked FSO deputy Jesse YoungChief to remove her from the room. Tyler wrote that YoungChief “dragged” Strock away from her husband, then was placed into handcuffs, locked into the patrol vehicle, and taken to the Riverton FSO headquarters. 

“The state did not show by a preponderance of the evidence that the defendant was given the Miranda warnings at the time she was handcuffed,” the judge wrote. 

He also noted that Strock “appeared disoriented as to time, place, or purpose,” when she arrived for her interview, according to bodycam footage. 

“As of approximately 12:15:15 a.m., no law enforcement officers, specifically including Armstrong, have… informed the defendant of her status (i.e., under arrest or free to leave), and no law enforcement officers, specifically including Armstrong, had informed her of the Miranda warnings.” 

In conclusion, Tyler wrote, the state “has failed to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that any of the defendant’s statements to Armstrong after approximately 12:39:32 a.m… were voluntarily made, and they must be suppressed.” 

Prosecutors may not introduce any of the suppressed evidence at trial in their case-in-chief. However, the state may use the evidence to rebut certain defenses and testimony, if the defense narrative runs contrary to the evidence.