Albany County officials have found themselves in tough situations since Sheriff’s Corporal Derek Colling shot and killed unarmed Robbie Ramirez on November. 4th.
Albany County Sheriff Dave O’Malley faced controversy for hiring Colling in 2011, given Colling’s history of violence. Colling had previously killed two people in the line of duty, he was fired from the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department for another on-duty assault, and he cost the City of Las Vegas $100,000 in a civil lawsuit.
Now that Colling has killed a Laramie resident, people in Albany County are wondering whether O’Malley should shoulder some of the responsibility for Ramirez’s death.
Albany County Attorney Peggy Trent is also in hot water. She has refused multiple requests to publicly release the body and dash camera footage of Ramirez’s killing, even after she showed it to journalists and allowed television stations to cherry pick bits for rebroadcast. This leaves Trent awkwardly trying to explain why it was okay to release the video to some members of the public, but not others.
Meanwhile, Trent faces a separate dilemma as the county’s prosecutor.
As County Attorney, Trent represents the people of Albany County. But she also represents the Albany County Sheriff’s Department. How, then, is she supposed to decide whether to prosecute an employee of the Albany County Sheriff’s Department (her client) on behalf the people of Albany County (also her client)?
The short answer is: she shouldn’t decide. Trent faces a clear ethical conflict of interest, and she should recuse herself from this case.
Laws regarding prosecutorial conflicts of interest are not very clear in cases that involve police defendants. Police rarely face criminal charges in court, so there is simply little legal precedent in this arena to guide us.
But what is absolutely clear is that police and prosecutors have close, symbiotic relationships. Prosecutors rely heavily on police. Police literally bring them work by arresting suspected criminals. When prosecutors decide to pursue charges, they rely on police investigation and testimony to secure convictions. Since the public tends to evaluate prosecutors on their ability to convict criminals, prosecutors’ jobs literally depend on police.
Police-prosecutor relationships are especially tight in rural places like Albany County (and most of Wyoming). The same officers work with the same prosecutors day in and day out, forming valuable personal as well as professional bonds and cultivating a sense of trust. When you spend years working daily alongside police to protect the community, it is exceedingly difficult to switch roles and go after someone your professional life depends on.
Trent may or may not have legal ground to remain the prosecuting attorney on Colling’s case—Wyoming law is ambiguous. But if she chooses to remain, there is absolutely no guarantee she can put aside biases that would impact her decision-making. This would threaten the fairness of any trial, leaving open the possibility that a conviction could be overturned. It would also risk making a mockery of our legal system. As U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall cautioned: “… actual prejudice in such circumstances misses the point, for what is at stake is the public perception of the integrity of our criminal justice system.”
There would be several viable options for continuing to administer Colling’s case after Trent’s recusal. The case could be moved to another county, or another county’s attorney could be put in charge. Similarly, the Wyoming Attorney General’s office could take the case or appoint a special prosecutor.
Each option presents challenges. And these options may even decrease the likelihood that Colling faces charges—an outcome that would likely dismay many Albany County residents.
But people who are concerned about Robbie Ramirez’s death at the hands of police should also be concerned about a criminal justice system that allows conflicts of interest to go unchecked.
We cannot stand aside and allow for corruption because it is easy or convenient. Regardless of whether someone thinks Colling should face charges, it should be obvious that Trent’s situation is problematic.
As the U.S. Supreme Court has stated, a prosecutor’s obligation “…is not that it shall win a case, but that justice shall be done.”