By Kerry Drake

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.

Opinion

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?

Kerry Drake

Veteran Wyoming journalist Kerry Drake has covered Wyoming for more than four decades, previously as a reporter and editor for the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle and Casper Star-Tribune. He lives in Cheyenne and...

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  1. Your comment, “In hindsight, society gained nothing by seeking and obtaining a death sentence for Eaton, only to abandon it in frustration 18 years later” says lots. Wyoming would have gained nothing, and probably lost a lot if Mr. Eaton had been put to death. His crime certainly might warrant death, but executing him hurts us all. “Thou shalt not kill,” is often followed by lots of exceptions, but it can stand alone in most instances. You’re right that he’s not hurting anyone while incarcerated, and that the costs of death penalty prosecutions are awful, but not the main reason we should not pursue them. The damage is to us when we kill in cold blood. I appreciated your thoughts. Thanks.

  2. I cannot ever support the death penalty–I do not want my government to ever assume that there is some right to murder in my name. However, a deep hole with little sunlight, no sensory stimulation and deprivation of other human contact seems appropriate!

  3. The cost to keep these killers in prison for life is so costly.
    The death penalty is a lot cheaper .
    The limit of number of appeals must be shorten

    1. I’m not at all sure where you are getting your cost information information from, but $1.2 million dollars for the state of WY to seek the death penalty the second time around is more than the possible $900,000 it has spent the past 18 years to keep him housed and fed. You can also add the amount of trying him and seeking the death penalty the first time around to that $1.2 million and come up with a total far surpassing what it takes to keep an inmate housed for life. This has always been the case within our modern legal system.

      1. I find my reply in need of correction. The $900,000 figure is too high for the following reasons: a check online for per diem inmate costs in Wyoming comes up with no information. The state, along with four others, did not submit figures to vera.org for their national 2015 survey of state incarceration costs. However, a check of states in our region come up with costs ranging from $20,000-40,000 to house an inmate in their prisons per year.
        If these figures are applied to Eaton’s case, the State of Wyoming could have paid $360,000 in total for his past 18 years of incarceration, and perhaps twice that at the higher rate.
        Once again, either one of these costs is far exceeded by the amounts spent to try him twice. Please check out the costs of a life in prison vs. putting an inmate to death; you can come up with this information online.
        The greatest problem with the death penalty is the one we refuse to examine and call into question. Too many believe the committed crime will be served justice by eliminating the criminal from the living community, the criminal receiving an equal treatment he or she gave the victim; the equivalent of an eye-for-an-eye. This is not a position for justice to take, but for vengeance and retribution by those of us who think the state responsible enough to stand in place of our desires to see the criminal punished beyond reason. The death penalty, when carried out, does nothing to achieve justice, but does make sure killing one more person is the ultimate answer.
        Given the number of inmates on death row who have had their convictions overturned within the past ten years, I would rather the state house these convicted felons until, in many cases, proper legal and forensic evidence are examined. There have been far too many mistaken convictions handed down in our nation’s history, and we (the state) need to be held accountable and responsible for the quality of our legal and penal systems. A life in prison for Eaton is one of confinement in a very solitary way, knowing the life one led is much different, just on the other side of the bars, and never to be enjoyed again. What could be a more horrific sense of justice than this?

  4. Sirhan Sirhan came up for a parole hearing (again) out here in CA. Parole board recommended he be released; Gavin Newsom declined to take their recommendation. Same with Charlie Manson and our other caged malefactors. We even have a prison, San Quentin, with real Death Row. No one has been executed in decades, despite overwhelming sentiments and votes to enforce he death penalty. Arnold, Jerry and Gavin just say no. I have no answer to this conundrum either….I just think Sirhan and Charlie always fit the bill for a lethal jab.