The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday announced it had declined to hear the appeal of Dale Wayne Eaton, a Wyoming man who could face death for the killing of a teenager whose body was found in 1988 in the North Platte River.
The country’s highest court made its announcement following a closed justices’ conference for consideration of potential cases. It did not offer an explanation, which is typical for those cases the court declines to take.
Following the U.S. Supreme Court decision, the 10th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals ordered that the case return to Wyoming's federal district court, where Eaton's death sentence was thrown out.
Only after the case returns to Natrona County will prosecutors again ask that Eaton be put to death for the kidnapping, rape and murder of Lisa Marie Kimmell.
The sentencing hearing will become the second Eaton, 75, has faced. He was sentenced to death shortly after his convictions, and he was — for a time — the only person on Wyoming’s death row. In 2014, a federal appeals court threw out Eaton’s sentence, ruling that he had not received appropriate representation during that stage in the proceedings. Before Eaton could be sentenced again, defense attorneys brought a series of appeals seeking to prohibit him from being resentenced to death.
After an appeal made by Eaton to the 10th Circuit failed, local prosecutors in 2019 announced they would again seek Eaton’s execution.
Shortly after, Sean O’Brien, the Kansas City law professor who specializes in death penalty appeals and is representing Eaton in the case, asked the U.S. Supreme Court to intervene. In the February appeal, Eaton asked the country’s highest court to take his case, arguing that his trial attorney did not properly investigate his competence to stand trial. Although appeals courts already found that Eaton was not properly assisted during the penalty phase of his trial, in the latest request, Eaton’s lawyers argued that no court had fully determined whether his trial lawyers harmed his case by failing to investigate his competence before the trial began.
The Wyoming attorney general argued in response that Eaton’s claim of ineffective assistance of counsel was not properly preserved, and he effectively waived his right to appeal the issue.
Authorities for a decade were unable to find Kimmell’s killer. In 1998, though, after Eaton was convicted in a separate assault case and sentenced to the Wyoming State Penitentiary, authorities collected Eaton’s DNA and learned it linked him to Kimmell’s body. In 2002, law enforcement unearthed Kimmell’s car on Eaton’s property in Moneta, about an hour west of Casper.
In 2003, the Natrona County District Attorney’s Office charged Eaton with Kimmell’s death, and in early 2004 jurors convicted him of first-degree premeditated murder, felony murder, aggravated kidnapping, aggravated robbery and first-degree sexual assault. A decade later, that sentence was scrapped. He has remained incarcerated while awaiting a new sentencing hearing.
Nobody else currently 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 failed. This year, an introductory vote on the issue failed narrowly.
O’Brien did not respond to a Tuesday morning voicemail seeking comment. Natrona County District Attorney Dan Itzen, whose office is handling the new sentencing, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.