Dale Wayne Eaton — the man whom Natrona County prosecutors are trying to put back on death row — has a mental state so precarious that he may not be able to participate in a hearing to evaluate him, said a defense lawyer.
Sean O’Brien, the Kansas City law professor who has recently led appellate representation of Eaton, made the statement during a Friday afternoon video hearing held in Natrona County District Court.
Judge Daniel Forgey held the hearing to solicit arguments on an issue pertaining to whether Eaton is entitled to representation during his mental evaluation. The results of that evaluation could be used to prevent prosecutors from seeking Eaton’s death.
Forgey did not make a determination on the issue Friday afternoon. But during the approximately 40 minute hearing — for which Eaton did not appear — O’Brien in addition to the statements pertaining to Eaton’s mental health said that Eaton has chronic injuries resulting from a crushed pelvis.
O’Brien he believes Eaton is guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment to have a lawyer present during the evaluation.
Assistant District Attorney Michael Blonigen disputed O’Brien’s understanding, saying that he does not believe case law cited by the defense lawyer is applicable to Eaton’s circumstances.
The prosecutor as well indicated that he expects the Wyoming State Hospital — which will be responsible for administering the examination — may take some time to complete this portion of the sentencing process.
“I recognize that it’s highly unlikely we’ll get this evaluation done in 30 days,” Blonigen said. “But it gives us a place to start.”
A jury sentenced Eaton to death following his 2004 conviction for the 1988 kidnapping, rape and murder of a teenage woman who disappeared when she was passing through Wyoming on her way home to Montana.
Eaton, though, has mounted a series of appeals since the conviction. A federal judge in 2014 threw out his death sentence, ruling that Eaton, then the state’s only death row inmate, had not received appropriate representation during the sentencing stage of the case.
His sentence remains undetermined. Wyoming law mandates that the only other sentence Eaton could face is life in prison. But defense attorneys following the 2014 determination brought a series of appeals seeking to avert a new death sentence. After a defense appeal to the 10th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals failed, local prosecutors in 2019 announced they would again seek Eaton’s execution. O’Brien soon asked the U.S. Supreme Court to intervene, but earlier this year it declined to do so.
Nobody else faces the death penalty in Wyoming. Although state legislators have in recent years cited the cost of death penalty prosecutions in their attempts to end capital punishment, those efforts have been unsuccessful. This year, an introductory vote on the issue failed narrowly.
Sign up for our Crime & Courts newsletter
Get the latest in local public safety news with this weekly email.