CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) — A federal judge on Thursday overturned the death sentence of the lone inmate on Wyoming's death row, saying his trial lawyers had failed to give jurors sufficient reason to spare his life.
Lawyers handling the federal appeal of 69-year-old Dale Wayne Eaton didn't dispute that he had killed 18-year-old Lisa Marie Kimmell of Billings, Montana.
Instead, they argued that his previous attorneys from the Wyoming Public Defender's Office failed to present factors that might have given jurors a reason to consider sparing his life, such his low intelligence and abuse he suffered as a child.
In his ruling, U.S. District Judge Alan B. Johnson in Cheyenne gave Wyoming a choice of either granting a new sentencing hearing for Eaton within 120 days in Natrona County or keeping him locked up for life without parole.
Casper District Attorney Michael Blonigen, who initially prosecuted Eaton in state court, said Thursday he's ready to argue again that Eaton deserves the death penalty, although he hopes the attorney general appeals the judge's ruling.
"It's very important that Wyoming make a decision here whether we have the death penalty or whether we have the death sentence," Blonigen said. "To sit here ten years later and undertake a 20-20 hindsight review of what an attorney did 10 years ago — OK, that's the challenge that faces us."
Eaton was sentenced to death in 2004 for the 1988 rape and murder of Kimmell. She had disappeared in 1988 while driving across Wyoming, and her body was found in the North Platte River.
Authorities say Eaton kept Kimmell captive in a rundown compound in Moneta, west of Casper, before killing her and burying her car on the property.
The investigation stalled until 2002, when DNA evidence linked Eaton to the case while he was in prison on unrelated charges. Investigators then unearthed the missing car on his property.
Eaton was convicted in state court and sentenced to death. His new lawyers appealed the sentence to Johnson after the Wyoming Supreme Court upheld the sentence.
The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that defendants facing a possible death sentence have a constitutional right to undergo a full investigation into their life circumstances so jurors will have that information as they decide a penalty.
Johnson held a two-week evidentiary hearing last year that featured testimony from relatives and mental health professionals about Eaton. Eaton's lawyers said the material could have been developed and presented to the state jury by Eaton's original defense team — but it wasn't.
Johnson ruled Thursday that Eaton's state defense was deficient, falling below standards set by the American Bar Association and failing to satisfy constitutional requirements.
For example, Eaton didn't have two experienced death penalty lawyers on his team, as the ABA recommends. And while the association recommends separate investigators and mitigation experts, his team had one person handling both jobs.
If Wyoming chooses to hold a new sentencing hearing for Eaton, Johnson specified that the state must appoint experienced death penalty lawyers not associated with the Wyoming Public Defender's Office to represent him.
An appeal would go to the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver. Attorney General Peter Michael was not immediately available for comment on whether he'll appeal, his office said.
Eaton was represented in his federal appeal mainly by Cheyenne lawyer Terry Harris and Sean O'Brien, a Missouri lawyer who specializes in death penalty cases. Attempts to reach Harris and O'Brien were not immediately successful on Thursday.
In 2009, Harris and O'Brien succeeded in persuading a judge to overturn the death sentence of prison inmate James Harlow in the stabbing death of a correctional officer at the state penitentiary in Rawlins. That decision left Eaton as the only man on Wyoming's death row.
Harris and O'Brien raised similar issues in Harlow's case as they did in the appeal involving Eaton, saying the state public defender's office did an inadequate job and failed to put up enough money to investigate Harlow's case and background.
Wyoming last carried out the death penalty in 1992 when it executed convicted murderer Mark Hopkinson. Several other death sentences have been overturned on appeal since then.