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Tillman gets stay, to challenge sentence

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Convicted killer Elroy Tillman, who was sentenced to die for murdering a man in 1982, was unfairly sentenced because a prosecutor did not reveal important evidence and made inappropriate references to LDS religious beliefs during closing arguments at trial, according to a new petition filed by Tillman's attorneys.

The petition is for post-conviction relief, which possibly could result in a new trial.

Assistant Utah Attorney General Thomas Brunker said he did not think Tillman is entitled to a new trial but said at least some the questions raised in the petition should be handled in court.

State attorneys have agreed to a stay of execution for the 66-year-old man who was to be executed Oct. 12.

A commutation hearing before the State Board of Pardons set for Sept. 24 has been canceled. Third District Judge Leslie Lewis signed the stay of execution Wednesday morning.

Tillman was convicted and sentenced to die for killing Mark Schoenfeld, 28, in Schoenfeld's Salt Lake home. Tillman entered the house at night, bludgeoned Schoenfeld in his bed with an ax and set the bed on fire, leaving Schoenfeld to die. Prosecutors said Tillman was jealous because Schoenfeld was dating Tillman's former girlfriend.

Tillman's defense attorneys maintain that Tillman's death sentence is "aberrant" when compared to other murder cases in Utah and that he is on death row in part because race played a role in the case. Tillman is black.

The petition claims that Tillman's defense attorneys at the trial got only partial transcripts of statements made by Carla Sagers, Tillman's accomplice in the crime. The partial transcripts were made from two interviews with police done in conjunction with polygraph tests, the petition said. Sagers was granted immunity in return for her testimony against Tillman.

However, Brunker said Sagers' statements in those transcripts are consistent with what she said at a preliminary hearing and at the trial.

The petition also said the prosecutor at the trial, Michael Christiansen, made "very subtle references to doctrine and ritual of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints."

"Christiansen argued that failure to return a death verdict would amount to a violation of the sacred obligation of Latter-day Saints and would be a mockery of God. Such argument violated Tillman's due process rights under the Eighth Amendment and the 14th Amendment of the United States Constitution," the petition said.


E-mail: lindat@desnews.com