CHEYENNE, Wyo. — Lisa Marie Kimmell was on her way from Denver to Cody, Wyo. to visit her boyfriend on the day she disappeared.
The 18-year-old’s body was discovered floating in the North Platte River about a week later. Her killer remained at large for 10 years, the cold case gaining infamy as the so-called Lil’ Miss murder, so dubbed because “Lil Miss” was inscribed on the vanity license plate affixed to Kimmell’s missing vehicle.
This week, that killer, Dale Wayne Eaton, who eventually admitted to brutally raping and murdering Kimmell and was sentenced to death by a jury, had his capital punishment rescinded by a writ of habeas corpus.
It’s the latest in a slew of recent death penalty debates in the Rocky Mountain region.
Eaton’s current lawyers are not disputing that their client killed Kimmell in 1988. They’re not suggesting he didn’t dump her body over a bridge or bury her car under 10 feet of dirt. They’re not even contesting that he held her captive for six days at his desolate compound in Moneta, Wyo., sexually assaulting her on a regular basis.
What they do claim is that Eaton didn’t get an adequate defense during his initial trial, claiming his former lawyer, Wyatt Skaggs, took a defense approach that was “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.”
Eaton’s lawyers have insisted that Skaggs made a concerted effort to save money for the Wyoming Public Defender’s Office by hiring just one person to look into Eaton’s background. To offer some measure of contrast, Aurora theater shooter James Holmes is being represented by both Tamara Brady and Daniel King, two of the top public defenders in Colorado, and both have pushed hard to present a thorough snapshot of their client’s mental health. In fact, Holmes’ trial has been delayed four times over the past two-plus years in large part due to disputes over his mental health exam.
Just over 10 years ago, Eaton was never given a mental health exam, his trial took place less than a year after he was charged and he was sentenced to death three days after his conviction.
Since that conviction, Windsor-based psychiatrist Dr. Kenneth Ash has suggested Eaton suffers from bipolar II disorder, a mental illness associated with major depression and hypomania. That condition was not discussed during Eaton’s trail.
Is Eaton’s criminal history more pertinent than his mental health?
U.S. District Judge Alan B. Johnson agreed with Eaton’s new lawyers in a 375-page ruling issued on Thursday, vacating Eaton’s death sentence and ordering a new sentencing hearing.
The decision didn’t sit well with the Wyoming Attorney General.
“We hold the federal district court in the highest regard, but we are disappointed by this decision,” the attorney general’s office wrote. “Wyoming prosecutors recognize the seriousness of capital punishment and seek it in only the most egregious cases. Mr. Eaton’s kidnapping, rape and murder of Lisa Marie Kimmell is one such case.”
Part of the Attorney General’s objection seems to stem from the very point Eaton’s new defense attorney’s are calling into question: the 69-year-old’s past.
In addition to possibly revealing a better look at Eaton’s mental health issues, a deeper look into Eaton’s past would also reveal an incident of violence that is eerily similar to the one that ended with Kimmell’s untimely demise.
Shannon Breeden, her husband and the couple’s then 5-month-old baby successfully fought their way out of Eaton’s clutches in 1997. He had offered to help the family after their car broke down near the Red Desert in Wyoming, but later pulled a gun in an attempt to abduct them, Breeden said.
Ultimately, it was an ill-fated decision for Eaton, as the couple beat him with his own rifle, stabbed him several times, stole his van and left him bleeding in the desert.
Eaton was convicted of aggravated assault after the incident, but given his lack of a criminal record, he received a short sentence in a pre-release program in Casper — a sentence he ultimately skipped out on. It wasn’t until he was found several months later camping on nearby national forest land that he was convicted of being a felon in possession of a deadly weapon and sentenced to serve a seven- to 10-year sentence at the federal penitentiary in Florence, Colo.
It was there that Eaton’s DNA was was entered into the criminal database, at which point he was linked to the DNA evidence recovered from Kimmell’s body. Five years later, he was extradited back to Casper and charged with a rape and murder dating back 15 years.
Tenuous future for death penalty in Rocky Mountains
The Eaton debate is not unlike the one that ensued in May of 2013 after Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper granted temporary reprieve from execution to death row inmate Nathan Dunlap, who was convicted of killing four at a Chuck E. Cheese shooting in 1993. While some Democrats pushing a bill to repeal the death penalty in Colorado lauded the decision, Hickenlooper’s opponents lambasted him for it, and the incumbent governor nearly lost his post in the latest midterm elections.
But even for proponents of capital punishment, the process of executing death row inmates has become a tricky one. A recent embargo issued by the European Union, which opposes the death penalty, has made it difficult for the U.S. to obtain drugs from overseas manufacturers that specialize in the production of the three-ingredient cocktail most commonly used in lethal injections.
With those ingredients in increasingly short supply, Ohio turned to unregulated pharmacies that produce two-ingredient lethal injection replicas. But that led to a botched execution in which a death row inmate writhed in pain for over 20 minutes before being declared dead.
The new-found logistical challenges with lethal injection have moved states like Wyoming and Utah to consider alternative sorts of executions, including the gas chamber and firing squad. In fact, Utah lawmakers will vote on whether to bring back firing squads in the upcoming legislative session.
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