PINEVILLE, Mo. —
Sheena Eastburn’s future is now in the hands of Circuit Judge Tim Perigo.
Attorneys representing the state and Eastburn filed briefs last week in McDonald County Circuit Court in connection with her request for a new trial based on claims of ineffective counsel during her 1995 trial.
The court also could decide how a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling could affect Eastburn’s conviction on a charge of first-degree murder. She was 17 when her ex-husband, Tim Eastburn, was killed in 1992. She was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
On June 25, the Supreme Court found that the Eighth Amendment forbids a sentencing scheme that mandates life in prison without the possibility for parole for juvenile homicide offenders.
Kent Gipson, Eastburn’s attorney, said in his brief that the court faces a difficult question in determining the “appropriate remedy that the Missouri judiciary is empowered to impose in order to follow the dictates (of the Supreme Court ruling) and also conform to Missouri’s statutory and constitutional requirements in criminal cases.”
Gipson contends that the appropriate remedy for Perigo would be to vacate Eastburn’s conviction for first-degree murder and enter a judgment of conviction on the lesser offense of second-degree murder. The court then would order a new sentencing hearing either before the court or a jury on the issue of punishment.
Such a ruling could open the door for Eastburn, now 36, to be sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole.
McDonald County Prosecutor Jonathan Pierce, in a recent hearing, suggested to the court that it could resentence Eastburn to life with the possibility of parole for the offense of first-degree murder. Missouri’s first-degree murder statute provides for only two possible penalties: death or life without parole. Gipson said Perigo does not have the constitutional power “to rewrite the first-degree murder statute and impose a statutorily unauthorized penalty.”
Pierce, in his final brief, said the issue of whether a juvenile can be convicted of murder in the first degree based on the current sentencing guidelines is an important issue for courts across the state. He suggested that Perigo should transfer the issue to the Missouri Supreme Court “so that it could be decided on a uniform basis for all cases across the state.”
Gipson said he questions whether a trial judge has the authority to transfer a case to the Missouri Supreme Court.
Eastburn was sentenced in 1995 to life imprisonment without parole for being an accomplice in the murder of her ex-husband.
Tests 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. Her IQ scores ranged from 80 to 91. Mild mental retardation is an IQ of 70 to 75. Her public defenders at the time did not introduce that information during the trial.
Eastburn’s primary public defender, Frank Yankoviz, has testified that he became involved in her defense two weeks before the trial. He testified that Eastburn did not receive a fair trial and that he felt “worse about this case than any other case” in his 20-year career as a public defender.
Her other public defender, Victor Head, now an associate circuit judge in Barry County, said he had significant contact with Eastburn before the trial and that there was no indication that she was mentally retarded. He said it was evident that she had emotional problems at the time.
In a challenge to Head’s representation of Eastburn, the court was told that Head had in his possession at the time of the trial — but did not use — a document that showed Eastburn had been psychologically evaluated at age 13 in 1989 at St. John’s Regional Medical Center in Joplin.
The report said she was “excitable, easily led by others, and given to action that was guilt free.” Gipson contends that the report could have been used to inform the jury that Eastburn was “under the substantial domination” of two other defendants who participated in the murder of Tim Eastburn, including the gunman who had stolen Eastburn’s rifle and used it to kill him.
Prosecutors alleged that Eastburn lured her ex-husband into the kitchen of his home near Rocky Comfort on Nov. 19, 1992, setting him up to be shot by Terry Banks and Matthew Myers. After a plea bargain, Myers was sentenced to 67 years on a reduced charge of second-degree murder. Banks was convicted of first-degree murder and was sentenced to life without parole.
Eastburn has testified that she had “no understanding of what was happening in court” at the time of her trial.
The jury also did not hear that Eastburn allegedly was raped two times by a jailer while being held in the McDonald County Jail. The jury also was not told that Eastburn allegedly became pregnant while in jail and that her pregnancy was aborted.
Eastburn’s mother, Lisa Blevins, of Stella, has testified that she and Tim Eastburn’s father, Melvin, told Head about the alleged rapes and discussed them with Don Schlessman, who was the sheriff of McDonald County at the time. Head has testified that he did not recall being told anything about the rapes. Schlessman said he was told about the rapes and fired the jailer.
The jailer, Terrie 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 14-year-old girl in 2010. He is serving four years in a state prison.
According to a probable-cause affidavit in the rape case, Zornes was working as a jailer between Jan. 1 and March 1, 1994, and had “complete authority over the inmate and her environment and welfare at the detention center. Eastburn was ordered into the property room for sexual purposes, and because of her confined status lacked the ability, authority and mental capacity to resist for fearing for her safety and well-being.”
The statement alleges that Zornes also attempted to alter surveillance video that showed him arriving and leaving the women’s pod of the jail, but that he failed to alter a clock visible in the video.
“This altered video did show a lapse in time on the clock on the wall in the video,” according to the affidavit.
SHEENA EASTBURN is being held at a women’s prison in Chillicothe.
Woman has been serving life sentence for first-degree murder
PINEVILLE, Mo. —
Sheena Eastburn’s future is now in the hands of Circuit Judge Tim Perigo.
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