BUFFALO — Convicted murder Donald C. Davis won an appeal to the Wyoming Supreme Court, which may set him free.
On a September day in 1982, Donald C. Davis, then 17, and Robert G. Cotton, 19, picked up Randall Shoptwese, an 18-year-old Native American hitchhiker from Montana. The following morning, Shoptwese’s body was discovered on Mayoworth Road, approximately halfway between Buffalo and Kaycee, a half mile off U.S. Highway 87. His hands had been cuffed behind his back and his head had nearly been severed from a buck knife wound.
Davis and Cotton were arrested in Gillette hours later on September 7. The two were originally charged with first-degree murder, felony murder and aggravated robbery, But on February 22, 1983, after Cotton cooperated with authorities, Davis was sentenced to life in prison for a combined charge of first degree murder and felony murder with 20 to 50 additional years for aggravated robbery.
More than 20 years later, on July 2003, 14-year-old Alabaman Evan Miller, along with an accomplice, killed their neighbor Cole Cannon, 52, by beating him with a baseball bat until he was unconscious and set his trailer on fire while he was inside. In 2006, Miller was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that juveniles could not be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole, citing the violation of Eighth Amendment rights. The ruling created a precedent with the Miller case. The Supreme Court held that the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment forbids the mandatory sentencing of life in prison without the possibility of parole for juvenile homicide offenders. The decision stated children are constitutionally different from adults for sentencing purposes.
The ruling would affect prisoners all over the United States, one of whom was Wyatt Bear Cloud. Bear Cloud was serving life in prison without the possibility of parole for a 2009 murder in Sheridan. Bear Cloud was 16 when he murdered Sheridan businessman Robert Ernst. Bear Cloud appealed the conviction in 2013 on the same grounds as Miller – an Eighth Amendment rights violation.
In 2013, partly in response to the Bear Cloud appeal, Wyoming Legislature changed the law, which now specifies that juvenile killers would become eligible for parole after serving 25 years.
With this change in law, Davis could now be set free.
On December 15, 2015, Davis was paroled and ordered to begin his 20- to 50-year sentence. Davis’ original sentence included two counts – one count of first-degree murder premeditation and one count of felony murder. The sentences were running concurrent with one another equating to a life sentence, according to Deputy County Attorney Josh Stensaas.
“The Wyoming Supreme Court has concluded that is the equivalent to a life sentence and the person is entitled to a re-sentencing hearing. Given the Wyoming Supreme Court decision, the court is required to conduct a re-sentencing hearing,” Stensaas said.
This isn’t the first instance of juvenile life sentences coming back up since the Bear Cloud appeal, Stensaas said in 2016.
In 2016, Judge William Edelman ruled that the original sentence was appropriate and sentenced Davis to another 20 to 50 years in prison. Davis’ defense team appealed the ruling and in April 2018 the Wyoming Supreme Court reversed Davis’ sentencing, concluding that the district court abused its discretion by weighing Davis’ youth as an aggravating instead of mitigating factor and failing to consider the participation and potential peer pressure of Cotton.
On March 4, 2019, Davis once again sat in a Johnson County courtroom. Over the course of two days, the state and Davis’ defense team placed psychologists on the stand to discuss Davis’ state of mind.
Stensaas asked the court to consider Davis’ history while incarcerated, citing behavioral problems such as failing a urinalyses test for marijuana in May 1999 and refusal of another urinalyses in November of that same year. Davis has also made serious verbal threats to guards, telling one in December 2006 he got a “rush” from killing.
The state’s expert was Dr. Amanda Turlington, a Sheridan-based psychologist. Turlington reviewed the defendant’s history related to psychological evaluations, behavior, history of prior conduct, including prison records and performed a current evaluation on the defendant involving a series of tests and a five-hour interview. Dr. Turlington diagnosed Davis as having antisocial personality disorder.
The defense team submitted to the court a listing of Davis’ history of self-improvement classes taken during his incarceration. Stensaas said that until the Miller ruling in 2012, Davis had taken only one class from 1996 to 2013. Since the ruling, Davis has taken 17 in recent years only to look better in the eyes of a parole board, not for self-improvement, Stensaas argued.
Davis’ defense team called Daniel Fetsco, a professor of criminal justice at the University of Wyoming. Fetsco served for 10 years as the Deputy and Executive Director of the Wyoming Board of Parole. Fetsco testified that a few of Davis’ violations while incarcerated were dismissed and thus should have little bearing to the court when considering a new sentence.
Davis’ defense team called Dr. Mark Cunningham to evaluate Davis and review the testing that had been performed on Davis in the past. Stensaas said a portion of Cunningham’s evaluation matched an evaluation he conducted in 2015 on Dexter Lewis II, a capital murder case that took place in Colorado. Stensaas said Cunningham had only replaced Dexter’s name with Davis’.
Edelman ordered counsel to submit written closing arguments at which point he will sentence Davis or begin the process to release Davis.