Dale Wayne Eaton is going to die in prison. Whether his demise will take place on a gurney after receiving a lethal injection or in his cell from natural causes, that part of his fate is sealed.
The convicted killer was on Wyoming’s death row for a decade before a federal judge overturned Eaton’s sentence in 2014. The state is still trying to execute him, but the 75-year-old inmate might die before another judge determines his final sentence years from now, when his appeals end.
If he lives to keep his date with the executioner, though, does the Equality State really want to be known for killing an octogenarian, however despicable he may be?
Justice in this case has been not only elusive, but hard to define. Is execution an easy way out for a murderer? Or is life without parole, with the knowledge that one’s remaining years will be spent behind bars, a tougher punishment?
Cost shouldn’t be the deciding factor, but it should be considered. The state of Wyoming has been picking up the tab for both the prosecution and defense of the indigent Eaton for 16 years. The state has doggedly pursued his execution in the name of Wyoming’s residents and taxpayers.
After years of soundly rejecting bills to abolish the death penalty, the Legislature came close to doing so in 2019. An unlikely coalition of conservative young Republicans, GOP civil libertarians and Democrats overwhelmingly passed the bill in the House, but it failed by four votes in the Senate.
The House fell three votes short of the two-thirds majority needed to advance a similar bill in the 2020 budget session.
Even if the courts rule against him, Eaton’s life could be spared by newly elected, anti-capital punishment lawmakers.
Eaton is in prison forever and is no longer a threat to public safety. I oppose state-sanctioned killing and believe Wyoming should have dropped its pursuit of his execution in 2014. Now, six years later, fiscal concerns and Eaton’s mental competency are two more reasons for the state to accept a life without parole sentence.
Make no mistake, Eaton is a monster. In March 1988, Lisa Marie Kimmell, 18, was driving from Colorado to Montana, planning a side trip to see her boyfriend in Cody. Unfortunately, she pulled over to rest near Eaton’s ramshackle property in Moneta, west of Casper.
Eaton’s physician later testified that Eaton confessed to pulling the teen from her car at gunpoint and taking her in the bus he lived in, where he repeatedly raped her. After holding her captive for several days, Eaton drove her to a bridge near Casper. He bludgeoned Kimmell with a rock, stabbed her and threw her body into the North Platte River.
Kimmell’s body was discovered on April 2, 1988. It took investigators 14 years to find Eaton and charge him with Kimmell’s murder, kidnapping and sexual assault, however. That happened after investigators matched DNA on Kimmell’s body with Eaton. He was in a Colorado federal prison for another crime at the time. Later, while searching Eaton’s property, law enforcement officials unearthed Kimmell’s car, which he had buried. Its vanity license plate bore her nickname: “LIL MISS.”
Jurors in 2004 convicted Eaton of numerous crimes including premeditated first-degree murder. In the string of state and federal appeals, his guilt has never been contested. His death sentence was affirmed in 2008 by the Wyoming Supreme Court, which didn’t buy the argument that he was mentally incompetent to stand trial.
But in 2014, U.S. District Court Judge Alan Johnson threw out Eaton’s death sentence and ordered the case sent back to state district court for resentencing. Johnson found that Eaton’s public defenders inadequately represented him by not offering more mitigating evidence to the jury, including his low I.Q. and childhood abuse.
“There was a reasonable probability that but for counsel’s deficient performance, the jury would have spared Eaton’s life,” the court concluded.
Buoyed by that victory, Eaton challenged the state’s ability to still seek the death penalty. His new defense team took the case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which declined to hear it. Newly back in court in Casper, Eaton’s mental state is now the subject of wrangling between prosecutors and the defense.
Eaton’s defense team, which claims his mental health is deteriorating, wants one of its lawyers to be allowed to attend his mental evaluation. The judge is set to hold a hearing on the motion in July.
The cost of Eaton’s lengthy criminal proceedings keeps climbing.
Meanwhile, the state’s cash-strapped public defender office must budget $2 million annually on the off chance that another defendant faces capital punishment.
Mental health issues aside, whether government should be executing senior citizens is an ethics question that legal scholars have debated for years.
It’s worth noting that during Eaton’s murder trial, the court expressed concern about his “memory problems” and his potential inability to assist in his defense. Yet Eaton’s public defender insisted he was competent and showed “no interest in pursuing a defense based on mental disease or defect.”
Many Wyoming lawmakers in favor of the death penalty say it needs to be available to prosecutors. The argument goes that they can use it as a bargaining chip to persuade suspects to confess to other crimes.
Eaton is a person of interest in several other regional crimes, including the still-unsolved 1997 disappearance of Lander’s Amy Wroe Bechtel. But if Eaton was going to cop to anything besides Kimmell’s murder to get a reduced sentence, he would have done it long ago.
A crime that Eaton committed less than two months after Bechtel went missing shows the depth of his depravity. Unlike Kimmell, this time his victims survived.
In 2004 I interviewed Shannon Breeden, who said Eaton stopped his van to “help” Breeden, her husband Scott and their infant son after their car broke down east of Rock Springs. Not long after he picked them up, Breeden took the wheel to let Eaton rest. He suddenly pointed a rifle at her husband and threatened to shoot their baby.
After she abruptly stopped the van, Eaton tried to stab her. Scott Breeden managed to grab the knife, stab their attacker and then beat him down with Eaton’s own rifle.
Breeden was resolute in her belief that Eaton planned to rape her and kill all of them. Given what he’d done to Kimmell nine years before, and the fear that was still in Breeden’s eyes, I have no doubt she’s right.
Eaton deserves no sympathy. But the depth of one man’s crimes still aren’t reason enough for Wyoming to keep the death penalty. Wyoming hasn’t executed anyone since 1992, and it has no prisoners on death row. It’s an extremely expensive prosecutorial tool that the state rarely uses.
To me, the most convincing argument against the death penalty is that when the state gets it wrong and executes an innocent inmate, it can’t correct its mistake.
It happens with alarming frequency. Just ask Gary Drinkard, an Alabama death row inmate who was exonerated — one of 164 in the nation since 1977.
Drinkard traveled to Wyoming last year to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee. “Innocent people have been killed,” he said. “We call ourselves a civilized nation, and we’re still killing our own people.”
If abolishing the death penalty in Wyoming lets a guilty man like Eaton languish in prison for the rest of his life but saves an innocent man like Drinkard, I think it’s an outcome the state can — and should — live with.