Michael Anthony Archuleta

Death row inmate Michael Anthony Archuleta may get a new attorney as he challenges his conviction and pending execution.

Who that new attorney will be remains to be seen. The condemned killer might end up representing himself, or his post-conviction relief case may be tossed altogether.

Archuleta, 46, appeared this week before a judge in Fillmore's 4th District Court, where the judge asked him if he wanted new counsel after his attorney, Ed Brass, had already withdrawn from the case.

"Archuleta said yes," Utah assistant attorney general Tom Brunker told the Deseret News. "The judge said he would look for new counsel."

Brass filed a motion to withdraw as counsel before the Utah Supreme Court on June 6 and the high court granted that motion. In his motion to withdraw, Brass argued the state did not give him sufficient funds to adequately defend Archuleta.

Archuleta was convicted in the 1988 torture-slaying of Southern Utah State College student Gordon Ray Church. Authorities said Archuleta and his accomplice, Lance Conway Wood, met Church at a Cedar City convenience store where he agreed to give them a ride to Salt Lake City. They drove to a remote location where Church was beaten, sexually assaulted, tortured with chains, battery cables and a tire iron, and his body dumped in a remote part of Millard County.

Wood was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.

Finding a new attorney for Archuleta could be problematic, Brunker said. Many attorneys with expertise in death penalty cases have started to decline cases, citing the lack of financial resources available from the state to defend a capital case, as well as the massive amount of time it requires to provide a constitutionally-obligated defense.

In Archuleta's case, Brass told the Utah Supreme Court he had exhausted the funds to hire expert witnesses in what he called an incredibly complex case. Brass told the justices he had been forced to spend his own salary given by the state on the case to pay experts, which still did not leave enough to hire co-counsel attorneys.

This year, the Utah Legislature passed a bill overhauling some post-conviction relief efforts, setting statutes of limitation for challenging a death penalty sentence and caps on how much can be paid to attorneys. The statute also says that if no defense attorney will take the case after a 60-day search, the defendant can proceed pro se (on his own). If he doesn't, the case gets tossed.

"In our view that 60 days has been triggered," Brunker said. "If there's no counsel found in 60 days you have to give Archuleta a chance to represent himself or his case is dismissed."

It still won't end the post-conviction appeals, he said. The case would move to the federal court system, where it will be reviewed.

E-mail: bwinslow@desnews.com