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Tillman seeking a new trial as execution date looms

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Less than two months from possible execution, Utah's oldest death row inmate, Elroy Tillman, is again fighting for a new trial.

Convicted of murder and sentenced to die almost 20 years ago, Tillman asked his attorneys Thursday to file a post-conviction petition requesting 3rd District Judge Leslie Lewis retry the 66-year-old inmate for the 1982 ax murder of Mark Schoenfeld.

In a Friday morning interview with the James Brown radio show on KIQ AM 1010, Tillman maintained his innocence and said he wanted to live.

It was first time the convicted death row inmate had spoken to the media in several years.

"I just want my attorney to defend me in this matter that I may get a new trial where the facts may be brought out instead of this lying," Tillman said.

Tillman, who is black, blamed his conviction on a "racist vendetta."

Tillman also accused lead prosecutor Michael Christensen of mishandling his case.

"From day one there was no fairness in my case," he said.

The request is based on evidence defense attorneys say was never provided to Tillman's lawyers during his trial.

"He'd been leaning that way for a while," said Michael Sikora, one of Tillman's attorneys.

The petition had not been filed as of this morning, according to a court clerk for the judge. Tillman's attorneys have until Sept. 12 to submit the petition. The state will then respond before Lewis makes her decision.

Albeit reluctantly, Lewis has already signed two execution warrants in Tillman's case.

Even if Tillman's appeal to the courts fails, the legal wrangling over his case could delay any execution for up to two years, Assistant Attorney General Thomas Brunker said.

Tillman is scheduled to die by lethal injection Oct. 12 at the Utah State Prison in Draper. A three-day commutation hearing before the Utah Board of Pardons and Parole, which has the power to spare Tillman's life, was scheduled to resume Sept. 24 at the prison.

Attorneys for both sides have agreed to a stay of execution, Brunker said.

The five-member board was to meet this morning to decide whether to cancel the commutation hearing, spokesman John Green said.

"We don't want the commutation to go forward while this is going forward," Brunker said. "As we did when we made the offer several months ago, we believe this is an issue that should go to the courts."

Tillman's niece, Joy Evans, agrees.

Only a child when Tillman was convicted, she has joined Tillman's wife, Doris Tillman, in supporting the convicted killer's appeal to live.

"I just hope and pray that if he is innocent, that it will come out," Evans told the Deseret News from her Southern California home. "I just believe everybody should have a fair trial, and I hope justice will be served. If he's guilty then he's guilty, but if he's innocent at least let him get a fair trial."

Tillman's current team of defense attorneys say that never happened because prosecutors failed to provide more than 50 pages of transcripts taken from interviews with Carla Sagers, Tillman's girlfriend at the time of the murder. Sagers accompanied Tillman to Schoenfeld's Salt Lake home during the murder but was granted immunity for testifying against Tillman at trial.

The transcripts in question contain portions of interviews Sagers had with detective Kenneth Thirsk. They were taken from the personal file of Michael Christensen, the lead prosecutor at Tillman's trial.

Sagers' answers contain a "virtual cornucopia of cross-examination material," according to a recent motion filed with the Board of Pardons by Tillman's current defense team of Loni DeLand, Michael Sikora and McCaye Christianson.

The state says the transcripts were not purposely withheld and that the statements Sagers gave in the transcripts were consistent with her trial testimony. "The prosecution has no recollection of ever seeing these transcripts," Brunker said. "He recalls the interview, but he does not recall that it was recorded, and he doesn't ever recall seeing the transcripts. It's just as likely the transcripts were put in the file after the case was over."

E-MAIL: djensen@desnews.com