Tribunal recommends disbarment for former prosecutor

Ellen Gerst, Casper Star-Tribune via Wyoming News Exchange
Posted 5/13/21

Hinckley was charged with failing to seek court-ordered records, disobeying a direct order from a judge, lying in court about the status of those records, sharing a letter from the defendant with local media and making inappropriate comments during the trial.

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Tribunal recommends disbarment for former prosecutor


CASPER — A former Teton County prosecutor violated seven rules of professional conduct in a 2015 trial that sentenced a man to life in prison, a Wyoming State Bar tribunal concluded Wednesday.

The tribunal has recommended Becket Hinckley’s disbarment, but the Wyoming Supreme Court will have the final decision.

“I’m proud of my career, but I’m not proud of this,” Hinckley said. “I failed the people of Wyoming, the people of Teton County, I failed myself and most importantly failed (the victim) and her family.”

Hinckley was charged with failing to seek court-ordered records, disobeying a direct order from a judge, lying in court about the status of those records, sharing a letter from the defendant with local media and making inappropriate comments during the trial.

By the time Hinckley’s lawyer, Cheyenne attorney Steve Kline, finished his closing statements on Wednesday, Hinckley had conceded to four of the nine counts of misconduct brought against him. Those nine counts stem from eight different rules of professional conduct included in the formal charges.

A three-person Board of Professional Responsibility panel found “clear and convincing evidence” of three other violations: knowingly making false statements in court, failing to take action on the records, and failing to follow up with law enforcement to issue search warrants or preservation letters for the records.

In a 2017 opinion, the Wyoming Supreme Court also found evidence of misconduct in the original trial.

Even before his case was brought before the Board of Professional Responsibility, Hinckley had admitted his failure to seek the records, his lack of diligence throughout the case and his professional misconduct that may have prejudiced those involved in the trial.

During Kline’s closing statements, Hinckley also conceded he had failed to comply with an explicit order from Teton County Judge Timothy Day to procure those Facebook and Verizon records. In admitting that violation, Hinckley also admitted “knowing disobedience” of the court.

The tribunal tasked with determining Hinckley’s guilt and subsequent discipline is made up of three volunteers — a lawyer, a retired judge and a layperson. In the decision Wednesday, retired judge Jeffrey Donnell relayed that the group found Hinckley had either knowingly or intentionally violated the bar’s rules.

On Monday, the tribunal heard testimony from Hinckley himself and Josh Black, the defendant in the assault case who received a life sentence after a jury convicted him in 2015. Because Black had three prior felonies in California, two of them violent, he was designated a “habitual criminal,” which under Wyoming law meant he was sentenced to life on a charge which otherwise carries a maximum of 10 years in prison.

Hinckley admitted Monday that his conduct during the trial was “sloppy and negligent.” Gifford cited in his closing statements on Wednesday nine instances where Hinckley told the court he had and would do everything he could to get those records but did not follow through.

Hinckley also said that when he was put back on the case after the Wyoming Supreme Court reversed Black’s conviction in 2017, citing misconduct in the trial, he was inaccurate and failed to follow up on orders to secure those records.

“He had this period of time where he was not functioning at the gold standard, or even other standards, of a prosecutor,” Kline said Wednesday. “He acknowledges that.”

Hinckley said since 2017, he’d had several opportunities to settle the misconduct charges without facing a formal tribunal, but didn’t take them because every proposal included money to be paid to Black.

“He got a Christmas gift from my screw-ups,” Hinckley said Monday. “I didn’t beat up (the victim), I didn’t cause this problem, and I don’t owe him any money.”

Black said the decision to recommend disbarment might make it easier for him to seek exoneration on the assault charge. After his original conviction was reversed in 2017, he pleaded no contest to the assault in exchange for a shortened sentence that got him out by March 2020. But trying to wipe that conviction from his record, he said, will be a major undertaking.

“Our legal system is based on the foundation of fair play,” Black said. “Its judgments and rulings have a profound effect on not only the accused and the accusers, but also everyone associated with them. The ripple effect is massive.”

Black said the tribunal’s decision made him proud of the years of work he put in to challenge his conviction and Hinckley’s conduct.

On the charges alleging Hinckley had made an extrajudicial statement to the press by sending a letter from Black to the Jackson Hole News&Guide, Kline maintained that Hinckley did not know how the paper got a hold of the letter from his personal case file. The tribunal did not find Hinckley violated those rules.

During questioning, Hinckley and other witnesses, including the lead detective on the case, said that the Facebook and Verizon records would not have changed the outcome of the trial.

Because he had reason to believe nothing substantial would be found in those records, Hinckley said the judge’s order for them, which went unanswered even as the case went to trial, was an improper order. His mistake, Gifford and Kline agreed, was telling the judge he would execute the order rather than filing a response outlining his issues with it.

The proceedings were the first bar disciplinary hearing to be open to the public, following a September 2019 rule change making the practice standard. Gifford said after the hearing concluded Wednesday that he didn’t notice any procedural differences in the open hearing. Kline commented during his closing statements that there were other things that could have explained Hinckley’s conduct during the remand, but did not want to bring it up “with the press around.”

“I think it’s a good thing that the process is now more transparent,” Gifford said. “Anytime you have transparency, you get more credibility.”

Teton County Prosecuting and County Attorney Erin Weisman testified Wednesday that more than $168,000 of county money has been spent on Hinckley’s legal fees since the charges were first brought in 2017.

Hinckley comes from a long family line of Wyoming lawyers and judges. His mother, Nancy Guthrie, was a district court judge in Teton County for more than 15 years. His father was also a lawyer and judge, his grandfather was a Wyoming Supreme Court judge in the 1970s and his aunt Mary Guthrie was a former executive director of the state bar.

Early in his career, Hinckley worked in Sen. Al Simpson’s office, as a prosecutor in Laramie County and served as a state representative from Cheyenne for two sessions.

Disbarments are relatively rare, Gifford said, although there have been two others in Wyoming so far this year.

Now, an order recommending Hinckley’s disbarment will be sent to the Wyoming Supreme Court, which Gifford said could come to a final decision within three months. Hinckley could also appeal the decision, which would likely add at least another year to the process. Only once in around 10 years, according to Gifford, has the court disagreed with a disbarment recommendation.