Death row inmate Michael Archuleta asks high court for new trial

Published: Thursday, May 12 2011 10:59 p.m. MDT

Michael Anthony Archuleta

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SALT LAKE CITY — Attorneys for death row inmate Michael Anthony Archuleta believe the man is entitled to either a new trial or a new determination of his punishment.

In oral arguments before the Utah Supreme Court Wednesday, Archuleta's current attorney James Slavens argued that the man had ineffective attorneys during his previous appeals and during his initial 1989 jury trial.

Archuleta, 49, and Lance Conway Wood were both charged in connection with the vicious 1988 slaying of Southern Utah University student Gordon Ray Church, 28. Both men have alternately named the other as the primary actor, but Slavens said he has an affidavit taken in 2009 where Wood takes responsibility.

He argued that Archuleta's attorneys could have easily obtained similar information and should have done so for Archuleta's sake.

"(Wood) made several confessions shortly after his arrest," Slavens said. "He called (The Salt Lake Tribune) and said he was the perpetrator of all the injuries."

But Chief Justice Christine Durham countered that Wood had also said, under oath, that he was present when Church was killed, but didn't take part in the beating that led to Church's death and that attorneys could have relied on that.

"We need some showing, specifically, that there was evidence out there and counsel should have looked for it," Durham said.

Assistant attorney general Tom Brunker said Wood's statements don't constitute a confession, but are simply "various, conflicting explanations" that have changed over time. He said there was no way Archuleta's previous attorneys can be deemed ineffective for not seeking information they didn't know existed.

"There is no proof that was even available to (a previous attorney) if he'd asked," Brunker argued. "(Wood) has never indicated he would have made the same statement."

Beyond that, Durham said Archuleta could still face the death penalty even if he were just an accomplice in Church's slaying.

Archuleta, who was convicted of capital murder in 1989 and sentenced to death, is pursuing two separate petitions on the state court level.

Wood was sentenced to life in prison without parole.

Church was killed Nov. 22, 1988, after he allowed Archuleta and Wood, who were both on parole, a ride after meeting the pair at a gas station. After driving into a nearby canyon, the two men had Church exit the vehicle on the premise of robbing him but instead began to severely beat and torture the man before raping him with a tire iron and burying him in a shallow grave.

Wood told his parole officer and led investigators to the body the next day.

Email: emorgan@desnews.com, Twitter: DNewsCrimeTeam

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