By CJ Baker, Powell Tribune
After raising concerns about how her case was handled, a Connecticut woman who was caught walking on one of Yellowstone National Park’s thermal areas last summer won’t be going to jail.
In a ruling earlier this month, a federal magistrate rejected Madeline Casey’s contentions that her constitutional rights were violated, but eliminated a seven-day jail sentence “in an abundance of fairness.”
Her co-defendant, however, wasn’t as fortunate. Days after reducing Casey’s sentence, U.S. Magistrate Judge Mark Carman rejected a proposed plea agreement for Timothy R. Francis that called for no jail time; the judge instead ordered Francis to serve a week behind bars for his role in the July 22 incident, according to his defense attorney and court records.
Federal prosecutors say the 26-year-old Casey and Francis ventured off the boardwalk in the Norris Geyser Basin in July. Both ultimately pleaded guilty to misdemeanor counts of foot travel in a thermal area.
At an August hearing, Carman handed Casey a seven-day sentence while imposing $1,040 in fines and fees and ordering a $1,000 payment to Yellowstone Forever, a nonprofit organization that supports the park. Casey was also banned from Yellowstone over the course of two years of probation, while prosecutors dropped a misdemeanor count of disorderly conduct.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Wyoming and Yellowstone officials soon highlighted her case — and the perils of going off-trail — in a press release picked up by numerous national news outlets.
In the statement, Acting U.S. Attorney Bob Murray noted that the park’s thermal areas are dangerous and well-marked, “yet there will always be those like Ms. Casey who don’t get it.”
“Although a criminal prosecution and jail time may seem harsh, it’s better than spending time in a hospital’s burn unit,” Murray said then.
Casey represented herself at her Aug. 18 sentencing hearing — indicating an attorney was too expensive — but soon afterward, she retained counsel and appealed her punishment. Her newly hired attorney, Ryan Wright of Cheyenne, contended that Casey’s rights had been infringed and questioned the fairness of her sentence.
“… Ms. Casey’s Sixth Amendment right to counsel was violated when the Court [Carman] did not appoint her an attorney after she informed the Court she could not afford counsel, even though she was facing the possibility of a jail sentence and was indeed sentenced to jail,” Wright wrote.
In response to the concerns — and the fact that no recording exists of Casey’s initial court appearance — the U.S. Attorney’s Office recommended that Carman vacate the sentence and schedule a new hearing or trial. But that idea was opposed by Wright, who said the government’s suggestion to put the case back on a trial track was “the most costly, lengthy, untimely, burdensome and prejudicial approach.”
Carman ultimately ruled without a hearing, issuing a three-page decision on Nov. 2.
Although he lessened Casey’s sentence, the judge generally rejected her attorney’s contentions. For instance, Wright charged that, in order to appear in court via Zoom, Casey had been instructed to sign a form that waived her right to an attorney. However, Judge Carman noted the form requesting permission to appear remotely was separate from the document waiving an attorney.
“Having reviewed these forms, the court finds that they are clear,” the judge wrote. “And, further, had Ms. Casey been confused about the forms and sought additional information on the issue, it would have been clarified in the hearing.”
Carman added that, while there’s no recording of her initial hearing, Casey was properly advised of her rights and “fully understood her right to representation, including her right to court appointed representation if she was indigent.”
According to the ruling, Casey initially said she’d be hiring an attorney, then changed her mind and requested a change of plea hearing; she mentioned that the cost of a lawyer was “outside of my wheelhouse.”
In retrospect, Judge Carman said it would have been better if he’d pressed Casey on her “ambiguous statement regarding the cost of representation.”
“While this Court does not find any violations of Ms. Casey’s rights, in an abundance of fairness, this Court will vacate the jail sentence imposed,” Carman concluded, leaving the rest of the judgment intact.
Casey accepted the revised sentence, with Wright and another Cheyenne attorney, Jeremiah Sandburg, notifying the U.S. District Court on Nov. 8 that she was dropping her appeal.
But that same day, her co-defendant received a sentence that included jail time.
Francis’s case was delayed and a warrant issued for his arrest after he failed to show up for his initial court dates, but he later retained Branden Vilos of Cody and struck a deal with prosecutors. In exchange for Francis’ guilty plea to the count of foot travel in a thermal area, Vilos said the U.S. Attorney’s Office agreed to drop counts of disorderly conduct and violating closures and to effectively seek the same sentence given to Casey: $2,040 in financial penalties with no jail time.
However, at the Nov. 8 hearing, Judge Carman rejected the proposal. He instead imposed a seven-day jail sentence alongside $1,540 in penalties and a two-year ban from Yellowstone. Vilos said the judge expressed a desire to be consistent with past sentences for similar offenses.
For his part, the defense attorney said he made the case that Francis — who lacked a prior criminal record — was very cooperative and immediately took responsibility for his actions when approached by a park ranger.
“I argued that he [Francis] would be punished enough,” Vilos said, and that a stiffer sentence might not necessarily deter the general public.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office and the Park Service did not publicize Francis’ sentence or Casey’s reduced punishment, but Casey’s attorney highlighted her lightened sentence in a news release provided to CNN earlier this month.
“We are grateful that the Court recognized the harsh sentence,” Wright wrote, “and that it was fair to vacate the jail sentence.”
As for Vilos, he would have liked a more lenient sentence for Francis, given his cooperation.
“But I do recognize the public safety concern and all that, too,” Vilos said. “It’s that balance, and the court’s got a role to play in this.”
Francis has until April to serve his seven days in jail.