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Eaton lawyers file big brief asking for new sentence

Jan 6, 2014 - From staff and wire reports

Lawyers for the former Riverton resident who is Wyoming's lone death row inmate have filed a massive court brief asking a federal judge to overturn his death sentence.

Inmate Dale Wayne Eaton, 68, is challenging the constitutionality of the death sentence he received in 2004 for the rape and murder of 18-year-old Lisa Marie Kimmell of Billings, Mont. The Wyoming Supreme Court already has upheld Eaton's conviction, but the federal court has put the execution on hold.

Eaton grew up in Riverton and attended Riverton High School.

Eaton's lawyers filed the 300-page brief with U.S. District Judge Alan B. Johnson of Cheyenne last week. The brief echoes testimony from a court hearing this summer at which many of Eaton's relatives and acquaintances testified.

Eaton's current lawyers don't dispute that he killed Kimmell in 1988. But they claim he didn't get an adequate defense at trial.

In challenging Eaton's death sentence, his current legal team has hammered on their claim that his trial lawyers didn't do a constitutionally adequate job of investigating his life, mental health and family history to draw out mitigating evidence that might have convinced even a single juror that his life was worth saving.

Kimmell disappeared while driving across Wyoming and her body was later found in the North Platte River. In 2002, DNA testing linked Eaton to the murder while he was in prison on unrelated charges.

At the time of Kimmel's murder, Eaton was living by himself in a rundown compound in Moneta, west of Casper. Authorities have said he kept Kimmell captive there for several days and raped her before killing her and burying her car on the property.

Eaton's current legal team consists of Cheyenne lawyer Terry Harris and Missouri lawyers Sean O'Brien and Lindsay J. Runnels. Harris declined comment Monday on the brief or the status of Eaton's case.

Harris and O'Brien successfully challenged the death sentence of James Harlow, an inmate at the Penitentiary of Wyoming who had been convicted of involvement with the death of a correctional officer. A federal judge overturned Harlow's death sentence in 2008.

The bulk of Eaton's latest federal brief levels criticism at lead trial lawyer Wyatt Skaggs of Laramie. Skaggs declined comment Monday, saying he can't comment on a pending case.

Eaton's team wrote in the brief that Skaggs' approach to the defense of capital murder charges is, "so fundamentally flawed that the jury that sentenced Mr. Eaton to die heard virtually nothing of his life circumstances and mental illness that led to his impoverished isolation at the time of his crime."

The brief charges that Skaggs' tried to save money for the Public Defender's Office by hiring a single person to serve both as investigator for the defense and as a mitigation specialist, meaning a person who would interview Eaton's family and others to try to present a complete picture of his life and personality.

The Wyoming Attorney General's Office represents the state against Eaton's appeal. Deputy Attorney General David Delicath said Monday that the state will file a response brief in early February. Delicath declined comment on Eaton's latest brief.

Once Eaton and the state finish this final round of briefing, the case apparently could be ready for Johnson to make a decision on Eaton's request to overturn his death penalty. However, the public court record isn't clear about the status of recent defense claims that Eaton may suffer from mental illness or mental disability that could preclude his execution.

Johnson previously approved a defense request for more medical testing of Eaton after his lawyers said that his IQ might be low enough that he could be covered by a federal ban against executing people with intellectual disabilities.

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