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Dale Eaton will die in prison. The death penalty is still hurting his victims.

Opinion by Kerry Drake, WyoFile

I don’t think I could stand to be in the same room as someone who killed one of my relatives. But I fully understand why Sheila Kimmell and her family want to see Dale Eaton in person again.

The state of Wyoming robbed them of that opportunity on Jan. 21, after they traveled from Colorado and Arizona to a Casper courthouse to tell Eaton about everything he took from them nearly 34 years ago.

Eaton, who kidnapped, raped and murdered 18-year-old Lisa Marie Kimmell in Wyoming in 1988, wasn’t transported from the medium-security prison in Torrington as scheduled by the court. The Department of Corrections initially apologized, then issued a press release saying “our Department unequivocally asserts we never received the transport order for inmate Eaton to attend this important January 2022 hearing. The process broke down exterior to the WDOC.” Interdepartmental figerpointing aside, it was an inexcusable error that added to the family’s pain.

Sheila Kimmell insisted that watching her daughter’s killer on a Zoom call for yet another hearing wasn’t acceptable. She had every right to make the demand.

“I want him here, this is my last time,” she said, breaking into tears. “To be re-victimized by the state after all this …”

The judge ordered a new resentencing hearing in March, where the Kimmells can read their final victim impact statements. And, hopefully, never see Eaton again.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. The state of Wyoming sentenced Eaton to death more than 17 years ago. What is he still doing in prison?

The answer, unfortunately, is a prime example why I think Wyoming should take the death penalty off the books. While the sentence is meant to exact the ultimate punishment on a criminal, too often the process takes an enormous toll on the survivors.

The Kimmells’ experience has been a decades-long tragedy as the state’s criminal justice system has failed them, year after year. Eaton has effectively run out the clock; he will assuredly die in prison, but the state of Wyoming will never execute him.

The killer hid his crimes well after he kidnapped Kimmell as she was traveling from Denver to Cody to visit her boyfriend. More than a week later, after she was sexually assaulted, bludgeoned and stabbed to death, her body was found floating in the North Platte River near Casper.

Fourteen years later, Eaton was imprisoned in Colorado for another crime when DNA evidence linked him to Kimmell’s murder. Investigators found her car buried on his property in Moneta, and it was an open and shut case against this monster. His public defenders never argued that Eaton didn’t commit his crimes, and his death sentence after the 2004 trial was no surprise.

But a decade after Eaton’s sentence, a federal judge in Cheyenne overturned the conviction because his attorneys had failed to present information about his background and mental health that would have allowed jurors to consider possible reasons to spare his life.

Prosecutors faced a choice: seek the death penalty again or keep Eaton in prison for life without possible parole. In 2015, the legal wrangling over whether he should be executed started again. The Kimmells had to follow appeals and hearings over the next six years to learn what would happen to the killer.

As the legal process dragged on, Eaton started to suffer from old age. Following a series of strokes and a dementia diagnosis, the court determined he was no longer mentally competent to undergo a death penalty sentencing hearing. So last September, after more than 15 years of uncertainty for the Kimmells, prosecutors finally took Eaton’s execution off the table.

And now, when the state brings the prisoner to his final sentencing next month, the Kimmells stand ready to confront him yet again.

This was a long, painful journey for the family that only happened because Wyoming has the death penalty. Without it, there would not have been years filled with appeals, hearings and disappointments. Eaton would have been condemned to spend the rest of his life in prison and faded into obscurity, where he belongs.

Since 2019, when a coalition of conservative lawmakers led the Wyoming House to pass a bill to repeal the death penalty, most of their arguments have centered on fiscal reasons. To date, the Senate has overwhelmingly rejected the notion that prosecutors shouldn’t have the option available.

The state hasn’t executed an inmate since 1992, when convicted murderer Mark Hopkinson died by lethal injection. No one sits on Wyoming’s death row today.

But make no mistake, capital punishment is still costly to the state. The Wyoming Public Defender’s Office budgets $750,000 a year just to keep its staff adequately prepared to defend capital cases. As of last May, the state’s decision to seek the death penalty for Eaton a second time had cost more than $1.2 million.

When a defendant like Eaton is indigent, the government pays for both his defense and prosecution.

I remember the Kimmells’ news conference after Eaton’s death sentence was announced. Sheila Kimmell described it as “a bittersweet moment.”

“We are the kind of people who could not intentionally hurt anybody — let alone kill anybody — but we think justice has been served,” she said. The message was clear: Revenge wasn’t their motive, but they accepted the jury’s verdict on Eaton’s fate.

The family, though, reportedly wouldn’t have objected to a plea bargain for a life sentence in 2004 if Eaton would testify about other killings. It was a noble gesture on their part, to help other families learn what happened to their loved ones.

After Eaton was identified as a suspect in Kimmell’s murder, investigators tried unsuccessfully to link him to the deaths of several young women in Wyoming between 1983 and 1996. No other charges were ever filed.

Eaton remained silent, and likely will continue to do so. However, we do know that in 1997 he kidnapped and attacked a couple and their 5-month-old baby in the Red Desert. The family survived and it turned out to be his undoing: Eaton’s conviction led to the DNA sample that five years later connected him to Kimmell’s murder.

The mother, Shannon Breeden, left her California home and returned to Wyoming to testify against her family’s attacker during Eaton’s murder trial.

“He tried to kill us,” she told reporters. “As far as I’m concerned, he slipped through the cracks once and I’ll be damned if I’ll let him slip through the cracks again.”

But the 76-year-old Eaton has eluded the ultimate penalty yet again, thanks initially to a terrible defense and then, as the appeals process wore on, the efforts of more competent counsel. The deterioration of his mental condition has now spared his life.

When the state failed to bring Eaton to his sentencing hearing, I was appalled. All I can think of is how much the Kimmells have suffered for so many years at the hands of a broken justice system.

In hindsight, society gained nothing by seeking and obtaining a death sentence for Eaton, only to abandon it in frustration 18 years later.

As Wyoming looks to its future, we know there will be other heinous crimes and similar decisions by prosecutors. But the public has been protected from Eaton since his murder conviction, and it will be until his natural demise. Can we learn from this lesson, or are we doomed to repeat it?

WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.