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Utah death row inmate appeals conviction in federal court

Published: Friday, Dec. 7 2012 5:08 p.m. MST

Death row inmate Michael Archuleta has filed a petition in federal court to overturn his conviction for the 1988 murder of a Southern Utah University student. AP Photo/Utah Department of Corrections) (, Utah Department of Corrections) Death row inmate Michael Archuleta has filed a petition in federal court to overturn his conviction for the 1988 murder of a Southern Utah University student. AP Photo/Utah Department of Corrections) (, Utah Department of Corrections)

SALT LAKE CITY — Death row inmate Michael Anthony Archuleta has filed petition in federal court overturn his conviction for the torture slaying of a Southern Utah University student in 1988.

Archuleta's attorneys challenge Utah's death penalty law as constitutionally flawed among 16 claims cited in the petition. They also argue that he had deficient counsel during his trial and post-conviction appeals in state court.

The 182-page document includes a lengthy recitation of Archuleta's life, starting with his being abandoned by his teenager mother and placed in foster care at age 3. It describes his life of alcohol and drug use starting at an early age, as well as mental health problems, learning disabilities and crime.

"I really think it's a compelling story that should have been discovered long ago," said Ken Murray, an Arizona federal public defender who represents Archuleta.

Archuleta, 50, and co-defendant Lance Conway Wood were convicted in separate trials in 1989 of the murder of SUU student Gordon Church.

The three men met in a Cedar City convenience store on Nov. 22, 1988, then went to nearby Cedar Canyon, where Church was raped and beaten. Archuleta and Wood then drove Church, 28, to another location, where Church was tortured and beaten to death.

Archuleta was sentenced to die and Wood to life in prison. Archuleta claims in his petition that the sentences were disproportionate.

Murray said Archuleta isn't claiming innocence, but there are questions about culpability and who actually did what.

Tom Brunker, head of the capital appeals section in the Utah Attorney General's Office, said it's clear to him who had greater involvement in the killing.

"Archuleta testified at his trial that Lance Wood did almost everything, and Lance Wood testified at his trial that Archuleta did almost everything," Brunker said.

Evidence at trial did not equally implicate the two, but Wood had blood splatter on his clothes, while Archuleta's "pants were drenched in blood from the knees down," he said.

"I think the fact that Archuleta's pants were drenched with the victim's blood more strongly supports Lance Wood's version that he was mostly a bystander while Archuleta did the actual killing," Brunker said.

Archuleta turned to federal court because his appeals in state court have run their course. He's now asking the court to reconsider his conviction under federal law.

"It's a very narrow standard for relief," Brunker said.

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