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Charge filed against Cheyenne teen with autism gets dismissed

Wyoming Tribune-Eagle - 7/16/2017

July 16--CHEYENNE -- The unlawful contact charge filed earlier this year against a local high school student with severe autism has been dismissed.

News of the case spread quickly in the community through social media after Caleb Tidwell's parents posted videos on YouTube in which they discussed his limitations and demanded the Laramie County District Attorney's Office dismiss the charge. The videos have since been taken down.

The misdemeanor charge filed against Caleb Tidwell on March 21 was dismissed without prejudice June 23 after a competency evaluation determined he was not competent to proceed.

The charge being dismissed with prejudice means it could potentially be refiled at some point if there is every reason to believe Caleb Tidwell is competent to proceed.

Because Tidwell was only found not competent to proceed -- rather than not competent at the time of the alleged crime -- "It would be highly unusual to dismiss it with prejudice at this stage," Laramie County District Attorney Jeremiah Sandburg said.

Heather Tidwell, Caleb Tidwell's mother, said she feels no closure, even though the charge was dismissed, because of the way it was dismissed.

"There'll never be closure because it was dismissed without prejudice," she said. "And in the state of Wyoming, there's no statute of limitations. I will wake up every day of my life and worry about the lack of justice in the justice system in Wyoming."

Mother disappointed in justice system

Heather Tidwell also said the case filed against her son and how it was handled has made her disappointed in the justice system in Wyoming and Laramie County.

"I feel like for a person with disabilities in the state of Wyoming that you never receive your right of innocent until proven guilty -- just guilty until proven incompetent," she said. "And it makes me very sad, not just for Caleb and our family, but for every family in the state of Wyoming with a child or a person with a disability."

The allegation in the case was that while Caleb Tidwell's arms went around a fellow student at Cheyenne'sCentral High School to give her a hug, one of his hands slipped down the back of her pants and touched her bare bottom for a second or two. The girl told police she grabbed Caleb Tidwell's hand, removed it and sternly told him no before he walked away.

Court documents indicate that after learning of Caleb Tidwell's autism, the attorney who charged the case offered by email what's called a "pocket deferral" -- if Caleb Tidwell was compliant on bond for four months, the case would be dismissed.

Sandburg said the alleged victim's parents "were on board with that because having gone to school with him, they understood his limitations."

"We thought that was an appropriate outcome -- kind of get through the rest of the school year, don't have any more incidences like this with other students, and there's no reason to proceed with the criminal prosecution," he said.

He also said he believes making decisions based on public opinion "would be a very bad approach as a prosecutor."

"If you are prosecuting based on public opinion, that is not justice," he said.

Changes made faster due to case

Sandburg has said his office did not know of Caleb Tidwell's condition before filing charges against him, and that had they known, the case would have been handled differently.

"That would have caused us to slow down on the charging decision and have those additional conversations before a charging decision was made," he said.

Sandburg previously said the police report that detailed Caleb Tidwell's level of autism came to his office after police forwarded an affidavit of probable cause supporting the alleged crime.

"At that point in time, we were in the transition phase between having hard copies of reports come over and going to the digital copies of the reports coming over," he said this week.

"This case kind of pushed us to getting it done faster, and we're now fully implemented," he continued. "So when a case comes over now, we typically just receive the affidavit, but then we're immediately notified that the reports and so forth will be ready (electronically), and we can go up and look at those as well."

Heather Tidwell expressed frustration that no one involved with the prosecution seemed to want to meet her son themselves or review school documents that detailed his condition.

"It's very obvious that Caleb is loved by the society in Laramie County and those that truly know him, you know, but Sandburg, (Chief Deputy District Attorney Monique) Meese, (Deputy District Attorney Joshua) Taylor and the alleged victim's mother -- every one of them refused to ever meet him," she said.

Sandburg said the case was complicated by the fact that his office could not discuss the charge with Caleb Tidwell's parents because they had not yet gone through the process of being appointed his legal guardians.

"He was an adult by law, 18 years of age, and so when the parents came to the front window and asked to meet with someone, they are not parties to the case, and he is an adult, and we can't speak with them," he said. "And that's part of the rules that we live under as attorneys. And it's unfortunate, because if they had the guardianship in place, we could have spoken to them, and maybe we could have avoided all of this."

Regarding the school documents, Sandburg said his attorneys are not medical health evaluators.

"That's not unusual for us to say we're not the right agency to look at that," he said.

Controversy over father's uniform

Heather Tidwell also spoke about how Sandburg personally reported to her husband's U.S. Navy commander that he wore his Navy uniforms in the YouTube videos the family posted. Chad Tidwell recently retired after serving for 22 years, and the family has moved 18 times throughout his career, she said.

"It's just appalling that this man went after my husband's career for something that should have never -- I mean, it's crazy," Heather Tidwell said.

"We feel like because when we did that YouTube video trying to just basically raise awareness of what was going on and asked the DA's Office to look at what they were doing and look at this objectively -- and it was very respectful -- they went, turned around, and went after Chad, which is crazy because the case was against Caleb."

Heather said her husband was well within his rights to wear his military uniform because doing so did not jeopardize the morale or functioning of his unit. She also likened it to an attorney wearing a business suit to court in support his or her child.

She also said Cheyenne is a military retirement community, and the community should know that the DA "thought he had so much power to go to the United States government and go after someone who has served our country."

Caleb Tidwell's attorney, David Singleton, filed a motion to disqualify the Laramie County District Attorney's Office in early May. The motion outlined numerous concerns, including the military uniform issue.

Filed along with the motion were numerous supporting documents, including a signed affidavit from Chad Tidwell's commander supporting the motion to disqualify the DA's Office.

A response to the motion filed by the DA's Office cited U.S. Navy uniform regulations that say military members, including retired and reserve members, are prohibited from wearing uniforms "when participating in activities such as public speeches, interviews, picket lines, marches, rallies or any public demonstration which implies the service supports the principles of the demonstration or activity."

The response also cited part of the regulation that says the uniform is not to be worn "while attending or participating in a demonstration, assembly or activity knowing that a purpose of the demonstration, assembly or activity supports personal or partisan views on political, social, economic or religious issues."

Sandburg said he did not treat the case in any special way by reporting Chad Tidwell's wearing his uniforms because it is not uncommon for that to happen.

"We would traditionally, in all cases, inform whatever branch they are from that that has occurred, and then leave it to the military to do whatever it is that they do in response," he said.

"I know that I've talked to one of our commanders at the base here in the Air Force, and they very much want to be informed if one of the airmen does that. I don't get involved in whatever the outcome is; that's their rules, and I'll let them handle it."

Sandburg said he once dealt with a case in a different county in which a military member showed up for jury trial in full dress uniform.

"Not a good outcome for that individual," he said. "We have a lot of military personnel in here in this office, and we take those rules very seriously."

Social media impact

The defense's motion to disqualify the DA's Office also talked about how the attorney who handled the case, Joshua Taylor, said early in the case that he wanted to "scare" Caleb Tidwell and his parents.

Sandburg said his attorney's use of the word scare was "inartful," but that "information that we had was this was not the first incident with Mr. Tidwell at the school with other children crossing boundaries, particularly with members of the other gender, and so we wanted to make sure that we had their attention."

The defense's motion to disqualify also addressed issues related to a prosecutor's husband's interaction with Heather Tidwell's posts on Facebook and other issues.

"The office has taken a case, which defendant contends never should have made it to where it is, and morphed it into a case fraught with bias, conflict and injustice," the motion said. "Certainly, Laramie County deserves better, but most importantly, Caleb Tidwell deserves better -- and for those reasons, Defendant Tidwell, through counsel, asks the Office to be disqualified from continuing this prosecution."

The motion never had a hearing because it was filed while the case was on hold pending the outcome of the competency evaluation.

Sandburg said his office focused on the social media attention the case received because the alleged victim had become a victim of cyberbullying.

"She got death threats, quite frankly. It was not good," Sandburg said. "I don't mean to imply that (the Tidwells) intended that result -- I don't believe that they did -- but that was what was occurring."

Sandburg said the community's response on social media to high-profile cases has been getting more and more disturbing.

"It would behoove all of us to learn from this," he said, explaining that people should take a step back and let the system play out before jumping in with their opinions -- whether it be victim shaming or "calling for fairly outrageous outcomes" for defendants who have only been accused of committing a crime.

"Because I think everyone is innocent until proven guilty, and I think with social media, that doesn't happen," he said.


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