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Eaton to get new hearing in 'L'il Miss' murder

May 6, 2012 - Staff and wire reports

The former Riverton resident who is Wyoming's lone death row inmate will get a new court hearing on claims he didn't receive an adequate defense at trial in state court, a federal judge has ruled.

Dale Wayne Eaton is challenging the constitutionality of the state death sentence he received in the 1988 rape and murder of 18-year-old Lisa Marie Kimmell of Billings, Mont., in a crime dubbed the "L'il Miss Murder" because of her Montana license plate which read "L'il Miss."

Guilt not questioned

Eaton's lawyers don't dispute that he killed Kimmell, who was abducted while driving alone across the state.

Investigators matched DNA found in her body to Eaton years after the crime and later dug up his car on his rural property about 50 miles east of Riverton near the Fremont-Natrona County line.

Eaton spent his youth in Riverton and was at Riverton High School with the class of 1965.

After the car was found and excavated near Moneta and removed from Eaton's rural residence there, Riverton firefighters were called upon to incinerate the buildings on the property.

'Lie or death'

"The issue is life or death ..." Eaton attorney Sean O'Brien said at a court hearing last summer. "We're not saying that an innocent man here has been convicted of a crime."

State lawyers have maintained that Eaton received a fair trial. His conviction already has been upheld by the Wyoming Supreme Court.

However, Thursday's order by U.S. District Judge Alan Johnson of Cheyenne granted Eaton's request for new evidentiary hearings on his claims that his trial lawyers were ineffective and that they failed to investigate and develop "mitigation evidence."

Such evidence could include anything about Eaton's past or mental condition that would underscore his humanity and possibly convince even a single juror not to impose the death penalty.

Array of claims

Johnson granted the Wyoming Attorney General's Office's request to dismiss an array of Eaton's other claims. Among the rejected claims were allegations of prosecutorial misconduct and the assertion that the jury received improper instructions on the law.

Eaton's current lawyers, Terry Harris of Cheyenne and O'Brien, a law professor and death penalty specialist from Missouri, have claimed that Eaton's trial lawyer, Wyatt Skaggs of Laramie, failed to develop a good relationship with Eaton, violating his right to effective legal assistance. Harris declined comment Friday.

Harris and O'Brien also have criticized Skaggs for not allocating more resources to the defense investigation for financial reasons.

In a 300-page brief that Harris and O'Brien filed last year, they charged that Skaggs failed to investigate Eaton's background and therefore wasn't able to present effective witnesses in the trial's death penalty phase.

The lawyers also claimed some witnesses could have testified on mitigation that Eaton suffered a tortured childhood and likely was mentally ill when he killed Kimmell.

Skaggs has declined comment on the case in the past, saying he won't comment on a pending legal matter.

Judge's details

Johnson states in his 91-page order on Thursday that Harris and O'Brien spelled out a compelling argument that Eaton didn't get an adequate opportunity to argue in his state appeal his claim that his defense was ineffective. Johnson noted that Eaton was only given 60 days to prepare and present his case on the issue on appeal.

Eaton, "... has surmounted a tall hurdle and shown that the state courts' decisions were based on an unreasonable determination of the facts," Johnson wrote.

Johnson's decision to grant Eaton new evidentiary hearings means that Harris and O'Brien will be allowed to call witnesses and essentially have a new trial in Johnson's court on the question of whether his Eaton's defense was constitutionally adequate.

Casper District Attorney Mike Blonigen prosecuted Eaton in state court. Blonigen's office said he was unavailable for comment Friday but he has emphasized in the past that he's confident Eaton received a fair trial.

In an interview last August, Blonigen said Eaton's lawyers' claims are typical of those in death penalty defense cases. "They say whatever they want to say, and then we have to spend years combatting them," he said.

Strong case

Blonigen also said the state's case against Eaton was one of the strongest criminal cases he's ever seen at any level.

"It's just a very incredibly strong job done by the forensic people and the sheriff's office," he said.

Attempts to reach Wyoming Attorney General Greg Phillips for comment on Friday were unsuccessful. His office is charged with defending the state's actions in prosecuting Eaton. Phillips has a policy of not commenting on pending litigation.

Harris and O'Brien are the same legal team that succeeded a few years ago in overturning the death sentence for James Harlow, who had been sentenced to die in the stabbing death of a correctional officer at the state penitentiary in Rawlins.

The claims the lawyers are raising now on Eaton's behalf are similar to those that brought them victory in Harlow's case.

U.S. District Judge Clarence Brimmer of Cheyenne ruled in early 2008 that Harlow was denied a fair trial in state court because conflicts between his trial lawyer, Keith Goody, and a former state public defender.

The judge said that Goody was made to fear he would be fired for doing his job and insisting on more resources to defend Harlow.

Brimmer also ruled that the state Public Defender's Office had failed to give Harlow's trial team enough money to investigate the circumstances of the Harlow's case and his background.

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