The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

Crime & Courts

July 10, 2012

Reopening of McDonald County woman's first-degree-murder case disputed in court

PINEVILLE, Mo. — A dispute over a March 2011 agreement to reopen Sheena Eastburn’s first-degree-murder case resurfaced again Tuesday in a hearing before Circuit Judge Tim Perigo in McDonald County Circuit Court.

This time, Eastburn’s attorney, Kent Gipson, of Kansas City, directed his frustration at Jonathan Pierce, the McDonald County prosecutor.

Pierce and the county’s assistant prosecutor, Sherrie Hansen, argued that Perigo did not have jurisdiction to proceed on the case since Pierce had not agreed to reopen the case.

Gipson produced a document that was signed by Pierce in front of Perigo in which he agreed to reopen the case. Pierce, who had been on the job for just two months, said he thought he was signing an agreement to have a hearing and that he did not know that it was an agreement to reopen the case.

Pierce said it was his mistake. He said he had learned a lesson.

Gipson countered by saying that Pierce was backtracking on a procedural issue after the court had already heard two days of testimony on arguments for and against reopening the case on grounds that Eastburn’s public defenders had failed to adequately represent her at trial.

Perigo said the agreement would stand and directed both attorneys to present proposed findings on two issues within 40 days. The issues pertain to the effectiveness of Eastburn’s legal representation on the first-degree murder charge and a recent ruling by the Supreme Court that it is unconstitutional to sentence a juvenile to life in prison without parole.

Gipson presented an order to the court at the beginning of Tuesday’s hearing that would have vacated Eastburn’s conviction of first-degree murder in the slaying of her ex-husband, Tim Eastburn, in 1992. Perigo said he did not approve of the form of the order submitted by Gipson, questioning whether the sentence — not the conviction — should be set aside.

“I’m not signing it today,’’ said Perigo.

Eastburn, who was 17 at the time of the slaying, was sentenced in 1995 to life imprisonment without parole for being an accomplice in the murder of her ex-husband. An appeal for a new trial because of ineffective counsel was denied two years later.

Gipson said vacating the conviction is the only judicial remedy and that could happen by “judge, jury or by agreement.’’

He said the Supreme Court struck down Missouri’s statute that permitted juveniles in cases of first-degree murder to be given either the death penalty or life in prison without possibility of parole. He said a judge does not have the authority under Missouri law to sentence someone convicted of first-degree murder to life in prison with the possibility of parole.

He argued the conviction must be vacated and reduced to second-degree murder, which would effectively reduce Eastburn’s sentence to life in prison with the possibility of parole.

Gipson, in arguing that Eastburn did not have adequate counsel during her trial, sought a new trial in an effort to have her sentence reduced to life imprisonment with the possibility of parole. The Supreme Court’s decision could accomplish that without a new trial.  

Eastburn, 36, who appeared in court Tuesday in leg chains and handcuffs, did not testify during the hearing. Representatives of the Eastburn family did not attend Tuesday’s hearing.

In previous testimony, Eastburn testified she had no “lengthy meetings” with either of her public defenders before her trial.

While Eastburn was being held in the McDonald County Jail, she allegedly was raped by jailer Terrie Zornes. Gipson said Eastburn’s public defenders at the time of her murder trial could have used the incident to reach a plea deal in which Eastburn would plead guilty to second-degree murder instead of murder in the first degree.

Zornes, 47, of Pineville, was charged in the Eastburn rape case after new evidence came to light last year. In a plea bargain in September, he obtained dismissal of the rape charge in exchange for pleading guilty to making sexual advances toward a teenage girl in 2010. He is serving four years in a state prison for making the advances toward the 14-year-old girl.



Examinations

TESTS FOR HER TRIAL in 1995 showed that Eastburn was competent to stand trial, but that she was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder because of sexual assaults at age 13. She also was suffering from depression, according to court records.

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