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Judge won't allow state mental screen of Dale Eaton

Mar 25, 2013 - By Ben Neary, The Associated Press

A federal judge on Friday denied a request from the state of Wyoming to allow its mental health expert to examine the state's lone death row inmate.

U.S. District Judge Alan B. Johnson of Cheyenne ruled that lawyers for the state can review a report from a psychiatrist retained by inmate Dale Wayne Eaton's own legal team once it's finished in coming months. While Johnson said he wouldn't let the state's expert examine Eaton, he said it's possible he could review that decision later.

Eaton, 65, is challenging the constitutionality of the death sentence he received for the 1988 rape and murder of Lisa Marie Kimmell, 18, of Billings, Mont.

Eaton is a former Riverton resident who attended high school with the Riverton High School class of 1965 but did not graduate.

Eaton's lawyers don't dispute that he killed Kimmell. She was found dead in the North Platte River several days after she disappeared while driving alone across Wyoming.

Eaton was serving time in prison in Colorado on an unrelated case years later when a DNA test identified him as the source of biological material found in Kimmell's body. Investigators later unearthed Kimmell's car from Eaton's remote property in Moneta, west of Casper.

Eaton was convicted in state district court in 2004 of killing Kimmell and a jury imposed the death penalty. The Wyoming Supreme Court has upheld his conviction. Eaton's federal appeal, which has been pending since 2009, is all that stands between him and lethal injection at the state penitentiary in Rawlins.

Johnson has denied many of the claims that Eaton raised on appeal but a few remain. The judge has called for a multi-week evidentiary hearing starting in late July.

Eaton's current legal team claims that his trial lawyer, Wyatt Skaggs, failed to recognize that Eaton suffered from mental and emotional issues. As a result, Eaton's current lawyers say, a mutual distrust and animosity developed between Skaggs and Eaton that violated Eaton's right to an effective defense.

The team also claims that Skaggs failed to conduct a reasonable investigation into Eaton's background that would have allowed him to present evidence at the sentencing phase of Eaton's trial that might have convinced jurors to spare him the death penalty.

Skaggs has declined to comment on those allegations, saying he can't talk about the case while the appeal is pending.

At Friday's hearing, lawyer Meri Geringer with the Wyoming Attorney General's Office told Johnson the state believes it has good reason to have its own mental health expert evaluate Eaton.

"There's an ongoing claim throughout this entire proceeding from the trial level on through that Mr. Eaton has had mental health issues, serious mental health issues," she said.

Geringer said the state wasn't interested in trying to determine whether Eaton is psychotic or suffering from other mental problems. Rather, she said the state wanted its own expert to try to determine what his mental state was during his state court trial, and what caused the communication breakdown between him and Skaggs.

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