Ed Cantrell Trial: 1979

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Ed Cantrell Trial: 1979

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.

Shredded Prosecution

At the trial, Rosa's wife admitted that in the last few days of his life, Rosa had been taking medicine that robbed him of sleep and made him edgy and suspicious of everyone. He began saying that Cantrell was out to get him.

Brother officers said Rosa was arrogant, quarrelsome, and violent, even pointing a gun at a man with whom he was arguing. He had been fired from the Washington, D.C., police force for threatening his first wife with a knife. Then he had been dismissed from the Prince George's County, Maryland, sheriff's department for undue aggressiveness. He had moved west and joined the Gillette, Wyoming, police department. He had been fired again, but Cantrell admired his fearlessness and hired him on the Rock Springs force.

Policeman Phil Watt, a prosecution witness, said Rosa had a dispute with Sergeant James Callas, his supervisor, over an expense account. Callas, like all Rock Springs officers, was terrified of the grand jury, which had indicted another cop over a $90 expense item. Rosa became convinced that Callas was going to frame him for something. In a tape-recorded telephone call, Watt told Cantrell about it and added, "Rosa's got a real cute stunt planned for Monday. What he's going to do when he gets up in front of the grand jury is cut his own throat and cut up a couple of other people's."

"Am I one of them?" Cantrell asked.

"No," said Watt. "The information that I'm fixing to give you doesn't necessarily pertain to you, but it does to people who work under you, Jim Callas, for one." The tape pretty much wiped out the state's contention that Cantrell shot Rosa because the detective would testify against him. The prosecutors never made it public.

Callas followed Watt to the stand. Callas had said he met Cantrell and Detective Matt Bider after Cantrell had been talking with Watt. Cantrell thought they ought to talk to Rosa. Rosa was at a bar in town.

When Rosa got in the car, Callas, said, he was holding a wine glass. He sat down and put the wineglass between his legs. Callas asked him for his birth date, which was needed for a report to be sent to the FBI, and was writing it down when he heard an explosion. He looked up and saw Rosa slumped over the seat and Cantrell standing outside.

"My God, Ed, what did you do?" he asked.

"He was coming at me. Didn't you see him coming at me?" Cantrell replied, meaning Rosa was drawing his gun.

Spence asked him why someone would put a wine glass between his legs. The prosecution had said Rosa's hands were around the glass.

"So his hands would be free, I guess," Callas said.

Bobby Bath, the county's chief prosecutor, testified he had Cantrell sent to the state hospital for examination. Spence read the report from the state psychiatrists: "He would not likely act impulsively nor be a danger to himself or others. This, of course, precludes a situation in which he saw himself threatened and needed to act in self-preservation."

Spence looked at Bath. "Now in just plain old English, what does that mean?"

"That means some psychiatrist down there says he wouldn't act except where he is threatened. but it doesn't say the psychiatrist was there when it happened."

The "psychiatrist down there," Dr. William Fogarty, was the next witness. He reiterated his opinion that Cantrell, who had never killed anyone in 30 years of law enforcement, would not kill except in self-defense. He added further medical testimony. The wound in Rosa's head, he said, showed that the dead detective had been leaning back, as he'd have to to draw a gun from his holster. Further, he testified, the medicine Rosa was taking "can bring on symptoms akin to psychosis."

When the state rested, Spence called prosecutor Fred Reed and revealed that the state archivist had refused to shred the documents sent to her. The unshredded documents included investigators' reports that Rosa was involved in drug dealing and in contact with gangsters in Salt Lake City and Tucson. The prosecutors, Reed admitted, had not bothered to follow up.

The next defense witness was Christopher Crofts of the state Criminal Investigation Division. Crofts had filed the affidavit charging Cantrell with murder. He had to admit that incriminating "facts" he had sworn to were not true. Rosa's hands were not, as he swore, around a wineglass. The safety strap on his holster was unsnapped, not snapped, as he had sworn. That indicated Rosa had tried to draw his gun.

Fireworks in the Courtroom

In his testimony, Cantrell said his revolver was in his belt, and his hand was resting on it. "That's the way I always sit," he said.

Cantrell's hand was already on his gun, then, when Rosa reached for his. And Cantrell was a quick draw expert. To show what that meant, Spence called a former lawman who knew Cantrell from years of competing against him at shooting events, retired Border Patrol officer Bill Jordan.

Spence brought in two revolvers and loaded them with blanks. He gave one to Jordan, who put it in a holster. He gave the other to a deputy sheriff, loaded and cocked. He instructed the deputy to point the gun at Jordan and fire as soon as the older man started for his gun. After a few moments, Jordan drew and fired. The deputy's mouth dropped open as he stood there holding the unfired gun.

Spence asked Jordan how fast Cantrell was.

"Ed's a mite faster than me," the old lawman said.

The jury found Cantrell not guilty.

Humble Pie Is Hard to Digest

The press found the verdict hard to accept. Texas journalist Molly Ivins, in a special dispatch to the New York Times, put a Wild West spin on the story. "An old Western saying is that the first thing to do in a murder case is to determine whether or not the victim deserved to die," she wrote, inventing "an old Western saying." She ignored the implications of the unsnapped holster and the bullet's path, as well as the prosecution's bullying and lies. Her account was fairer than most.

Ed Cantrell was free, but most of Wyoming, knowing only what they read in the paper or saw on television, still thought he was a murderer. For a long time, he couldn't get a job. Eventually he found work as a cattle detectivea private security guard for a group of ranchers.

William Weir

Suggestions for Further Reading

Holt, Don, and Paul Brinkely-Rogers. "Crime: Wide Open Town." Newsweek (August 7, 1978): 35.

Ivins, Molly. "Wyoming Jury Frees Law Official in Killing." New York Times (December 1, 1970): 10.

Spence, Gerry, and Anthony Polk. Gunning for Justice. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1982.