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Is death row inmate intellectually disabled or just stalling?

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Michael Anthony Archuleta

Michael Anthony Archuleta

Utah State Prison

SALT LAKE CITY — Attorneys for a man on death row for the grisly murder of a Southern Utah University student claim he is intellectually disabled, but the state contends he is just trying to delay his execution.

The case of Michael Anthony Archuleta, 55, was heard by the Utah Supreme Court on Wednesday as his attorneys argue the latest round of appeals in the case. He was not present in court for the proceeding.

Archuleta and his co-defendant, Lance Conway Wood, were convicted in separate trials in 1989 of the murder of SUU student Gordon Church. But while Archuleta was sentenced to die, Wood was ordered to serve life in prison.

The three men met in a Cedar City convenience store on Nov. 22, 1988, then went to nearby Cedar Canyon, where the two men had Church exit the vehicle on the premise of robbing him. They severely beat and tortured the 28-year-old student before raping him with a tire iron and burying him in a shallow grave.

Archuleta's attorney, Charlotte Merril, claimed Wednesday that the attorney who led Archuleta's first appeal after he was convicted was "conflicted, underqualified and underfunded." Important records raising several "red flags" about Archuleta's mental capacity were available, she contended, but were missed.

According to Merril, Archuleta has a history of intellectual disability in his family and received multiple disability diagnoses from the Utah State Hospital during his youth. Additionally, Merril said Archuleta scored in a "significantly subaverage range" in several IQ tests, and has a lowered adaptive functioning.

But Andrew Peterson, assistant solicitor general, contended Archuleta was evaluated by two experts during his appeal, and while they testified to other concerns in Archuleta's history, they never indicated he might be intellectually disabled.

Aaron Murphy, assistant solicitor general, alleged that Archuleta's team is only making their claim in hopes of further dragging out the decades-old case.

"They filed their federal petition in 2012 and we're standing here in 2018 and little has happened," Murphy said. "That's a victory for their client."

Merril countered, insisting, "Sitting on death row while intellectually disabled is not a victory."

Having already appealed his case through the state courts, Archuleta began appealing his case in federal court in 2012. However, because his claims of intellectual disability had not been previously presented at the state level, the federal court sent the case back to the Utah Supreme Court.

Utah's high court justices will now take the case under advisement.