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After renewed request, judge OKs death penalty specialist in Pryor Gap Road murder case

After renewed request, judge OKs death penalty specialist in Pryor Gap Road murder case

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U.S. District Judge Susan Watters, of Billings, has appointed a Colorado defense lawyer who specializes in death penalty cases to help represent a Wyoming man accused of murdering a couple on Pryor Gap Road.

After first saying no, Watters on Wednesday granted a renewed request by Federal Defender Anthony Gallagher of Great Falls to appoint Donald R. Knight, of Littleton, Colo., to help represent Jesus Yeizon Deniz Mendoza, 18, of Worland, Wyo.

Mendoza has pleaded not guilty to first-degree murder and other charges in the July 29 shooting deaths of Jason and Tana Shane on Pryor Gap Road near Pryor on the Crow Reservation. He also faces charges in the shooting and wounding of the couple’s daughter, Jorah Shane.

Prosecutors said Mendoza murdered the couple during a carjacking after the Shane family had stopped to give him roadside assistance.

If convicted of first degree murder, Mendoza faces death or mandatory life in prison.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office has not yet decided whether to seek the death penalty. No trial date has been set.

Watters initially rejected the defense request, saying Mendoza had three court-appointed federal defenders representing him and that he failed to show why another was needed.

Watters also said Mendoza’s attorneys had indicated earlier that Gallagher would act as “learned counsel” in meeting a legal requirement for at least one defense attorney in murder cases to have expertise in capital cases.

In renewing his request for Knight’s appointment, Gallagher said he did not have recent death penalty experience.

Gallagher also said the three federal defenders appointed to the case counted as one appointment and that Knight’s addition would be the second. In addition to Gallagher, Assistant Federal Defenders Dave Merchant and Steve Babcock, both of Billings, also represent Mendoza.

Watters said Knight would be paid at the maximum hourly rate for capital cases of $181 per hour. If the prosecution decides not to seek the death penalty, Knight’s appointment will be terminated, she said.

Gallagher, Watters said, had clarified that he was not acting as “learned counsel” and that Knight qualified for the appointment.

Neither Gallagher nor Knight could be reached for immediate comment on Thursday.

On his Facebook page and website, Knight said that since 1983, he has practiced criminal defense out of Littleton, with an emphasis on national federal death penalty cases for 14 years. His experience includes complex capital litigation and case management.

Knight has represented defendants in death penalty cases in California, Colorado and Oklahoma. Listed among Knight’s references on his resume is Sister Helen Prejean, a nationally known death penalty opponent and author of “Dead Man Walking.”

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Federal Court, Yellowtone County Reporter

Federal court and county reporter for The Billings Gazette.

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