CHEYENNE -- Lawyers for Wyoming death row inmate Dale Eaton have filed a 300-page petition in federal court claiming he didn't get a fair trial.
Eaton is sentenced to die for the 1988 rape and murder in Natrona County of 18-year-old Lisa Marie Kimmell of Billings, Mont.
His appellate lawyers, Terry Harris and Sean O'Brien, have asked U.S. District Judge Alan B. Johnson to overturn the death sentence. They claim Eaton's trial lawyer, Wyatt Skaggs of Laramie, failed to develop a good relationship with Eaton, violating his right to effective legal assistance.
Among other complaints that Harris and O'Brien level against Skaggs, they claim he failed to investigate Eaton's background and therefore wasn't able to present effective witnesses in the trial's death penalty phase. The lawyers say some witnesses could have testified that Eaton suffered a tortured childhood and likely was mentally ill when Kimmell was killed.
Harris and O'Brien also criticize Skaggs for not allocating more resources to the defense investigation for financial reasons. And they say Skaggs should have pushed to move the trial out of Casper due to heavy pretrial publicity.
Skaggs declined to comment Friday. "Even if I did have a reaction, I couldn't tell you what that was. It's in litigation," he said.
An attempt to reach Harris for comment was unsuccessful Friday.
The Wyoming attorney general's office will file a response to Eaton's petition in the coming weeks. Attorney General Bruce Salzburg declined to comment Friday.
Kimmell disappeared in 1988 while driving from Colorado to Cody. A fisherman later found her body in the North Platte River. Investigators made little progress until 2002, when DNA evidence linked Eaton to the case while he was in prison on unrelated charges.
Investigators later unearthed Kimmell's car on Eaton's property near Moneta. The Wyoming Supreme Court has already upheld his death sentence.
Harris and O'Brien allege in their petition that Natrona County District Attorney Michael Blonigen, who prosecuted Eaton, misled the trial court about whether an inmate who testified against Eaton got a break in another criminal case. The inmate claimed Eaton discussed Kimmell's slaying with him.
Blonigen said Friday he hasn't seen Eaton's petition. However, he said he was familiar with similar claims that Harris and O'Brien leveled earlier this year when they unsuccessfully asked Johnson to allow them to subpoena state records to support their claims.
On the issue of the other inmate's testimony, Blonigen said, "They basically try to make it sound like there was some secret plea agreement, and there just never was. That's just not true."
Blonigen said the lawyers' claims are typical in death penalty defense cases. "They say whatever they want to say, and then we have to spend years combatting them," he said.
Blonigen 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.