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Ed Cantrell Trial: 1979

Shredded Prosecution, Fireworks In The Courtroom, Humble Pie Is Hard To DigestShredded Evidence

Defendant: Edward Cantrell
Crime Charged: Murder
Chief Defense Lawyer: Gerald L. Spence
Chief Prosecutors: Preliminary Hearing: Robert Bath; Trial: Robert Pickett
Judges: Preliminary Hearing: Nena Stafford; Trial: Kenneth Hamm
Place: Rock Springs, Wyoming
Dates of Trials: Preliminary Hearing: November 13, 1978-February 7, 1979; Trial: November 12-30, 1979
Verdict: Not guilty

SIGNIFICANCE: The case demonstrated how media sensationalism, aided by prosecutorial misconduct, could have sent an innocent man to the death chamber. The media's grudging acceptance of the verdict did nothing to restore the reputation of a man who had served the public honorably and well for 30 years.

In the 1970s, because of the hunt for new energy sources, Rock Springs, Wyoming, suddenly became a boom town. The boom attracted gamblers, prostitutes and dope dealers. Because of this "big city" crime, the investigative television news program, 60 Minutes, did two installments on Rock Creek. Wyoming's governor established a special grand jury.

Then an undercover policeman, subpoenaed by the grand jury, was killed two days before he was to testify. Arrested for the murder was the director of public safety, Ed Cantrell.

Cantrell claimed he had shot his own agent, Michael Rosa, in self-defense. Prosecutors said it was cold-blooded murder. Newsweek reported that Rosa had "a fat brown envelope," with data to convict officials "all the way up to Washington," and the "fat brown envelope," had disappeared.

The preliminary hearing was interrupted for a couple of months because Cantrell's lawyer, Gerry Spence, forced a state witness to admit that the prosecutors had threatened him with a murder charge if he didn't cooperate. Spence got the hearing postponed until the grand jury's term expired. When the hearing resumed, Spence asked a witness if he were afraid of something.

"It's immaterial whether he's afraid," Judge Nena Stafford said.

"It goes to his credibility," Spence said.

"I'm not interested in credibility," the judge replied. After a heated protest from Spence, she relented. The witness admitted that he was "afraid, terrorized and felt paranoid" because of threats by the prosecutors.

Shredded Evidence

Spence tried to get documents of the grand jury investigation. He was told they had all been shredded. Fred Reed, a grand jury prosecutor, denied he had any evidence. A search of his briefcase, however, produced a loaded pistol and several tapes. On one tape Larry Yonkee, Reed's boss, was telling Reed to "get back and clean up or Spence will impeach us to death."

But the judge bound Cantrell over for trial.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1973 to 1980