Attorneys for condemned killer Michael Anthony Archuleta on Wednesday petitioned the Utah Supreme Court to send his appeal back to district court to fix a judge's convoluted ruling.
The justices took the case under advisement, but both the state and defense attorneys agreed that 4th District Judge Lynn W. Davis's apparent attempt to expedite Archuleta's execution would instead likely prolong his appeal.Arguments focused on a 65-page ruling Davis issued denying Archuleta's petition for a writ of habeas corpus. In it, Davis dismissed Archuleta's entire petition, which contained more than 83 allegations of error at his 1989 trial for the torture-murder of 28-year-old Gordon Ray Church, a gay Southern Utah University student.
Davis's ruling is confusing, conceded Assistant Utah Attorney General Kris Leonard, who told the judges that she had read it "several times and frankly still don't know what it says."
Archuleta's attorney, Karen Chaney of Colorado Springs, said it clearly ignores Utah case law dealing with the issue of ineffective assistance of counsel.
Archuleta's appeal has already been dismissed once by the Utah Supreme Court and was turned down without comment in its first trip to the U.S. Supreme Court.
In both instances, he was represented by Provo lawyer Mike Esplin. Now Archuleta, 34, is claiming Esplin made some 50 errors at trial and in his first round of appeals. In addition, Archuleta is claiming another 33 substantive mistakes at trial.
Davis, according to Chaney's interpretation of his ruling, dismissed them all on procedural grounds, saying the issues should have been raised earlier. She said that ignores Utah rulings that say such claims can be allowed in cases where a defendant is represented both at trial and on appeal by the same lawyer.
"You can't expect that lawyer to raise issues of ineffective assistance on himself," she said after the hearing.
Leonard, however, asked the justice to consider some other sections of the ruling in which Davis dismissed some claims on their merits. Those, she said, do not need to be decided again if the justices send the case back to Davis.
Both lawyers agreed that the confusing ruling will likely draw out the appeal, perhaps for several months. If the Utah high court denies Archuleta's petition for habeas corpus, he will still be able to raise those issues in federal court.
Church met Archuleta and his partner, Lance Wood, on Nov. 22, 1988, in Cedar City and agreed to drive them to Salt Lake City. Church apparently agreed to have sex with Archuleta but later refused. According to trial testimony, they took Church to a nearby canyon where they broke his arm, slashed his throat, wrapped him in chains and stuffed him into the trunk of his car.
They then drove him 76 miles north to a remote area in Millard County, where they tortured him for several more hours with a car battery and jumper cables before raping him to death with a tire iron.
Wood was also convicted of capital homicide but was sentenced to life in prison.