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UW Defender Aid Clinic Earns Giant Victory in Wyoming Supreme Court

April 25, 2018
Alyssa (Clegg) Conway, Julianne Gern, Hannah Toland and Catherine Young

The University of Wyoming College of Law’s Defender Aid Program recently achieved a major victory in one of its cases that has spanned a few years.

Last week, the Wyoming Supreme Court issued an opinion reversing Johnson County District Court’s refusal to modify a sentence of life imprisonment, with a consecutive 20- to 50-year sentence, for a client of the UW aid program.

In recent years, students in the Defender Aid Program began representing a series of cases seeking resentencing for juvenile clients through the application of the 2012 U.S. Supreme Court decision on Miller v. Alabama. Many of those cases represented by the UW Defender Aid Program made their way before the Wyoming Supreme Court.

The recent victory stems from one of those cases: Donald Clyde Davis v. State of Wyoming.

Alyssa (Clegg) Conway, a 2017 College of Law graduate from Saratoga, was the primary UW student who worked on this case. In 2016, Conway, with the assistance of fellow student Hannah Toland, also a 2017 graduate from Powell, appeared in Johnson County District Court in Buffalo for a full-day hearing regarding a motion to correct an illegal sentence for the client.

Unsuccessful at the District Court level, Conway drafted the initial appeal of the case to the Wyoming Supreme Court. She appeared before the court, making her argument a few weeks after graduating from the College of Law.

Following oral arguments, the state Supreme Court requested additional information. Catherine Young, of Casper, the current UW College of Law Defender Aid Program student director, was tasked with providing the supplemental brief to the court in collaboration with attorney Julianne Gern, of Laramie, a 2014 UW law graduate who had previously served as the clinic’s faculty supervisor, and Laramie attorney Tom Fleener, the current clinic faculty supervisor. Their collaborative efforts culminated with the ultimate win for the client.

“I am immensely proud of the work done by the students in the Defender Aid Clinic,” Gern says. “Alyssa drafted an outstanding brief for the Wyoming Supreme Court, and her oral argument was better than many practicing attorneys. Catherine stepped up and learned a complex area of law in a short period of time. Her outstanding written advocacy skills contributed tremendously to our success in this case.”

The successful outcome was a team effort, she adds. One of the strengths of the clinical program is that the cases remain housed within the UW College of Law clinic, rather than with one particular student or faculty supervisor.

The clinic provides continuity of representation for the client from start to finish. The client received a level of dedication from the faculty and students since the case’s initial acceptance into the clinic under the direction of the late UW College of Law Professor Diane Courselle, Gern says.

“Without the clinic, Mr. Davis likely would not have had the opportunity to argue his case, which would mean that he would still be serving an illegal sentence, and the state and country would be without the important ruling made in this case,” she adds.

In addition to the win for the client, the Supreme Court’s 4-1 decision established several procedures Wyoming district courts must use when determining whether a juvenile offender is one of the rare, irredeemable children who deserves to serve a life sentence or its functional equivalent. In an evolving area of law, the ruling in this case will help defense attorneys and juvenile defendants nationwide, Gern says.

“This case and its history will set the legal standard for all juvenile offenders in Wyoming,” Fleener says. “I’m very proud of all of the work that was put in by each of the UW College of Law students and the impact they are making in the state.”

About the Case

In 1982, when Davis was 17, he and a friend picked up a hitchhiker, then robbed and murdered him. In 1983, he was sentenced to life plus an additional 20-50 years to be served consecutively, meaning one after the other.

However, following the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Miller v. Alabama -- which found life without parole is an excessive sentence for all but the rarest of juvenile offenders -- Davis was granted parole in 2015 from his life sentence and began serving his consecutive 20- to 50-year sentence. Davis had served almost 34 years on his life sentence when he began serving the 20- to 50-year sentence.

Represented by the UW College of Law Defender Aid Program, Davis first filed a motion to correct an illegal sentence, arguing that this new aggregate sentence remained a de facto life sentence with no meaningful chance of release during his lifetime. The decision by the Wyoming Supreme Court reversed the District Court and remanded for resentencing.

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