CHEYENNE — Laramie County District Attorney Leigh Anne Manlove was called to testify Friday in her ongoing disciplinary hearing, kicking off a tense back and forth between her and the Wyoming State Bar’s attorney.
Manlove’s testimony followed that of former Deputy District Attorney Caitlin Harper, former Assistant District Attorney Rachel Berkness and Lori Pallak, a former legal assistant in the district attorney’s office. All three gave accounts of a seemingly toxic work environment, following two other former employees who testified to similar things on Thursday.
Formal charges filed last year with the State Bar allege that Manlove mishandled the prosecution of cases in Laramie County and inappropriately dismissed certain cases, and that she created a hostile work environment for employees of the district attorney’s office.
Following the hearing, which may last until next Friday, a three-person panel chosen from the Bar’s full Board of Professional Responsibility will decide whether to recommend disciplinary measures against Manlove to the Wyoming Supreme Court.
Special Bar Counsel Weston W. Reeves said he would likely need an additional hour to question Manlove Monday morning. This will likely be followed by questions from Manlove’s attorney, Stephen Melchior, and from the BPR panel members.
Reeves began by asking questions of Manlove about her intentions in suggesting that law enforcement agencies would have to prosecute some of their own cases following state budget cuts to the DA’s office.
In September 2020, Manlove wrote in a letter that her office would no longer be prosecuting non-priority cases. Priority cases included violent felonies, domestic violence cases, subsequent DUIs and felony drug crimes.
“Local law enforcement agencies will have to shoulder the burden of prosecuting all non-priority offenses, and prosecutors will no longer appear in court for those cases,” she wrote.
In suggesting this, Manlove said she was operating under district and circuit court rules, which permit parties to appear “pro se,” or “in one’s own behalf.” She said she specifically wrote “local law enforcement agencies” to suggest an attorney for each of the law enforcement agencies could prosecute these cases in court.
She denied that she had been “condoning the unauthorized practice of law” or trying to compel individual officers to prosecute their own cases.
Manlove said that, in conversations with current and former law enforcement, she learned it had been a common practice for law enforcement to appear in municipal court to prosecute their cases, and had been told the same happened in circuit court “back in the day.”
The district attorney said she floated this idea in a meeting with two of the three Laramie County Circuit Court judges, along with other potential ideas to take pressure off the DA’s office following budget cuts. At some point after that meeting, the circuit court judges indicated they would not allow that to happen in their courtrooms.
Reeves then moved on to questioning about accusations in the Bar’s second formal charge, which involves allegations that Manlove made false statements about her office not being able to access crime lab results.
Specifically, in the case of Rodney Law, a man charged with several violent felonies and with four prior felony convictions, Manlove missed a deadline to produce evidence from the Wyoming State Crime Lab that was apparently available to her office through BEAST, a database used to store the results of law enforcement investigations.
The case could not proceed without this evidence, and was later dismissed with prejudice – meaning the same charges cannot be refiled against Law – by a Laramie County District Court judge, according to the second formal charge.
During a June 6, 2019, hearing, in which Manlove admitted to missing the deadline to produce the evidence, she said she had no control over obtaining the evidence and blamed the Cheyenne Police Department for failing to provide her with the results, the second formal charge said.
Reeves asked Manlove about a scheduling conference a few months prior to the June hearing, in which she said she had the lab results she needed to go to trial. At that point, Manlove said, she had reviewed DNA results in the case, but she didn’t know that she needed to specifically request a litigation support package, which contributed to her failure to produce the needed evidence.
When asked about BEAST during her testimony earlier in the day, former Deputy District Attorney Harper said it was the responsibility of prosecutors to search for lab results within the system. She said she would check it daily when she knew she was waiting for results in a particular case.
Throughout Reeves’ questioning of Manlove, he became noticeably frustrated when she asked for clarification or didn’t answer in a way he seemed to be satisfied with. During several instances, Melchior objected to Reeves interrupting Manlove during her testimony.
Hearing Panel Chair Christopher Hawks at one point declared Manlove a hostile witness, giving Reeves permission to ask leading questions, like in a cross-examination.
From the beginning of her time in the Laramie County District Attorney’s Office, Harper said it was “like drinking from a fire hose.” Things were incredibly busy, but there was a sense of camaraderie among staff.
Harper had been hired by Manlove at the beginning of her administration after working on her campaign for district attorney.
Things changed about six months into Manlove’s tenure, when Assistant District Attorney Angela Dougherty collapsed in the office due to a brain aneurysm and died a day later. Around the same time, Harper said, Manlove’s father was diagnosed with cancer.
After that, “Things seemed to fracture, and we didn’t function as a team anymore,” she said.
Staff was working a large amount of overtime just to try to keep up. There was an incident where Manlove became angry about a victim missing a hearing, and she slammed a phone into its receiver until it broke into pieces, Harper said.
Following this incident, Harper said her office became a revolving door of fellow employees coming to her and crying about whether they could bear to continue working there.
Things got so bad that it was straining her personal life, she said, and she decided her marriage and family were more important. She left her position in January 2021.
After word spread that Harper was resigning, another former employee suggested she contact Bar Counsel Mark Gifford about conditions in the office. But after leaving the DA’s office, and until she was contacted by Bar Counsel for an interview related to the formal charges against Manlove, Harper said she wanted to stay out of any investigation.
Harper said she and other employees were concerned about Manlove following the personal tragedies and felt she needed to get help.
Melchior pointed out an exchange in which Harper sent Gifford a Wyoming statute that allowed for the removal of a county officer. Harper said Gifford had asked her if she knew of such a statute, and that she’d been taught since law school that when Bar Counsel asks for something, you cooperate.
Harper said she considered Manlove one of her best friends, and that she didn’t know where their friendship stood because of Harper’s involvement in the disciplinary hearing. She said she thought leaving the DA’s office was the most difficult thing she’d done, but that she was wrong.
“Being here is the hardest thing I’ve done,” she said. “This process has been awful.”
Responding to questions from the panel, Harper spoke about how Manlove’s priority case policy had affected morale among law enforcement. Harper, whose husband is a detective with the Cheyenne Police Department, said officers felt their work didn’t matter because property crimes weren’t prosecuted for a time, and they worried about the public perception that people could do whatever they wanted because lower-level crimes weren’t being taken to court.
Berkness, a former assistant district attorney, said she was given very little training when she began in her position as a misdemeanor prosecutor. She said Manlove called the position “chair candy,” that Berkness’ role was simply to show up in circuit court and try to answer the judge’s questions, and that there wasn’t much someone could do to prepare for a circuit court appearance.
As a result, Berkness said, she was often embarrassed in court because she was unprepared.
Under cross-examination by Melchior, Berkness said that Manlove was “really good about empathizing” after she’d gone through bad experiences in court.
But she also experienced the public shaming that other former employees testified to, including critical reply-all emails to the office’s staff. She said other attorneys would tell her that Manlove was making fun of her behind her back, and that the same thing happened to the other attorneys.
Berkness echoed previous testimony that the office was chaotic, and that Manlove’s expectations often changed. She gave one example where she suggested to Manlove that a certain case should be dismissed and was harshly criticized about it over email, but when it was later taken to trial, Manlove said the case should have been dismissed all along.
Berkness started at the DA’s office at the beginning of Manlove’s tenure in January 2019 and left in September 2021. She said she believes she was the longest tenured assistant district attorney under Manlove.