By Clair McFarland, General Assignment Reporter
An Albany County man convicted of shooting a Colorado tourist in a Wyoming campground in 2020 will get a new trial.
John Gerald Howitt, 44, was convicted in a state district court of aggravated assault for shooting Drew Pickering, of Boulder, Colorado, in the hip in a campground near Centennial in the summer of 2020.
Pickering was under the influence of both alcohol and marijuana at the time and had been stumbling through Howitt’s campsite. Howitt contended that Pickering also bumped against the SUV in which Howitt was trying to sleep, according to court documents.
Howitt is serving a four- to eight-year sentence at the Wyoming Honor Farm near Riverton, according to the Wyoming Department of Corrections.
A Man’s SUV Is His Castle
A man may have the right to defend his vehicle with gunfire, if he has been sleeping in his vehicle, the Wyoming Supreme Court indicated in a remand order giving Howitt a new trial. But that’s something a jury should consider, the court added.
In his original trial, Howitt had asked the court to instruct the jury on Wyoming’s castle doctrine; that is, the law that gives a person the right to use force when someone is unlawfully entering their home.
After a dispute about whether an SUV used at a campsite counts as a home, camper or tent, the court did not instruct the jury on the castle doctrine, the remand order states.
Because of this, the Wyoming Supreme Court on Thursday determined that Howitt can be given a new trial in district court.
Socks And Underwear
Howitt arrived at the Willow Creek Campground about five days before Pickering did that summer.
Pickering reached the grounds at about 7:30 p.m. on July 24, 2020.
He drove through the campground looking for available sites, drove away, then returned to Willow Creek at about 8:30, according to the remand.
He sent “numerous text messages,” the order continues, indicating that he was lost, stumbling and didn’t know where he’d left his vehicle.
Pickering heard a sound and felt something punch his left hip, then heard a man say, “Yep, you’ve been shot,” the order states. The man then said, “I thought I told you not to come back here again.”
Howitt emerged from the SUV in his socks and underwear to shoot Pickering, court documents state. But he got dressed before authorities arrived.
‘You’re Lucky I’m A Good Shot’
After realizing he’d been shot, Pickering sat on the ground.
The remand order says Howitt, the shooter, tried to call 911 several times.
Eventually, passersby discovered the pair and started helping Pickering.
During this time, Howitt said, “I’ll bet you’ll never drink again, f**ker,” and, “You deserved what you got;” “You’re lucky I’m a good shot;” “I could’ve killed you” and “I told you not to mess around with me,” the order states.
Pickering reportedly asked Howitt questions like, “Why are you so mad at me?” and “Why are you so angry?”
Bumped And Rocked
Howitt also filmed Pickering while the others rendered aid, according to the remand order. Howitt later told law enforcement he was hoping to catch Pickering saying something incriminating.
Two of the bystanders drove to Centennial to call 911 while another stayed with Pickering.
A Wyoming Highway Patrol trooper arrived and arrested Howitt after finding Pickering lying on the ground, shot, the order states.
Howitt told law enforcement that a man was stumbling and staggering around the campground that night, but he couldn’t get a good look at the man in the evening light. He said he was “concerned” about the man’s intentions.
When Howitt went to bed, he said he felt someone repeatedly bump against or rock the front of his vehicle, the remand states.
Howitt equated this action with an attempt at forceful entry into his SUV, which he said qualifies as his habitation under the castle doctrine because he’d been sleeping in it.
Jury Should Decide
The Wyoming Supreme Court determined that both the question of whether the SUV was a habitation, and whether bumping and rocking it could be forceful entry attempts, should have been decided by the jury, rather than dismissed from the jury instructions.
“The district court erred when it refused to give (Howitt’s) proposed castle doctrine instructions that would have informed the jury about these presumptions,” the remand order reads. “There was evidence in the record which the jury could have interpreted to support (Howitt’s) defense that Mr. Pickering was ‘in the process’ of breaking into Mr. Howitt’s SUV when Mr. Howitt resorted to using force.”
The high court did not determine whether Pickering was trying to break in or whether an SUV is a habitation, but left these questions to the next jury to hear Howitt’s case.