JOPLIN, Mo. —
Lisa Blevins smiles as she looks at a photograph of her young daughter making faces in the back seat of a car at their home in Stella. In another photo, she sees Sheena, her only child, in a wedding dress with the man who would become her husband, Tim Eastburn.
Her smile gives way to an expression of sadness.
“She was only 15 then. She was just a kid,’’ said Blevins. “Sheena was wild. I will admit that. For her and Tim, life was one big party.
“She got herself in situations that got her into a lot of trouble. There were a lot of things that happened to her as a child that she never told me.
“I just wish I could have done more for her when I had the chance. Maybe things would have turned out differently.’’
About two years after the wedding photo was taken, Tim Eastburn was dead. Prosecutors claimed that Sheena, who turned 17 just 50 days before Tim was killed, was the mastermind of a plot in which she enlisted the aid of two accomplices to shoot Tim, then 22, for his money and drugs.
The Eastburns had divorced two months before the shooting, which occurred on Nov. 19, 1992, at Eastburn’s rural home at Rocky Comfort. But they were still seeing each other.
Prosecutors told jurors during her trial on July 20, 1995, that Sheena had lured her ex-husband into the kitchen of his home.
On the back porch, Terry Banks, Sheena’s new boyfriend of two weeks, and his friend, Matthew Myers, waited for an opportunity to shoot Tim through a kitchen window with a rifle the men had stolen two days before in a burglary of Tim’s home.
With Sheena standing beside him and just after he kissed her, Tim was shot in the head by Banks. Myers came inside with the rifle and shot him again to “finish him off.’’
During the trial, prosecutors introduced nearly 60 items of physical evidence, including the rifle, bullet fragments taken from Tim’s body, and dozens of photographs of the murder scene as well as his autopsy.
But it’s what wasn’t brought out during the trial that is now the issue.
Jurors were never told about IQ tests that raised questions about Sheena’s capacity to organize a killing, or that one of her defense lawyers believes they were not prepared for the trial.
Nor were they told that Sheena had allegedly been raped by a McDonald County jailer, and may have been taken by county officials for an abortion — information her lawyers could have used to negotiate a lighter sentence.
Instead, jurors were told that Sheena’s relationship with Banks and Myers was not unlike that of “a Judas goat’’ — goats that are trained to lead sheep to the slaughter. The jury of six men and six women deliberated an hour and 10 minutes before finding Sheena guilty of first-degree murder. The jury assessed a sentence of life in prison without parole.
But Sheena Eastburn and her attorney, Kent Gipson, of Kansas City, have a different take on what happened that night in 1992. They have filed an appeal for a new trial based, in part, on new evidence that they claim the jury did not hear. One of Sheena’s defense attorneys at the time now acknowledges that his client received ineffective counsel during her trial.
According to their version of the story, in the period immediately before the murder, Banks, Sheena Eastburn and Myers were using lots of drugs. They were all high on marijuana, alcohol and meth in the days leading up to the murder. Sheena had not slept for five days.
Despite their divorce, the Eastburns maintained an ongoing sexual relationship. Anytime Sheena needed money or drugs, she visited her ex-husband, who gave her what she wanted in exchange for sex. The Eastburns also had made plans to be remarried in the week before he was killed.
When Sheena met Banks two weeks before the murder, she began a sexual relationship with him, too. Banks, described as extremely jealous, possessive and violent in court papers filed seeking the appeal, was upset about Sheena’s plans to return to her ex-husband.
Two days before the murder, Banks, Myers and another man, Dennis “D.J.’’ Johnson, burglarized Tim Eastburn’s home, taking an AK-47 rifle. Sheena claims she learned of the burglary the day of the murder when she saw Myers with the rifle. She convinced them not to sell the gun, but to return it because the serial number on it could be used to trace it back to Tim.
According to Sheena’s statement to police at the time, the three had planned to rob Tim of drugs and money, and leave the rifle at the house. When they found Tim at home, Sheena attempted to get him out of the house by asking him to take her for a ride on his motorcycle, but it was late and raining outside.
Gipson, in his appeal, contends that Banks flew into a jealous rage and fired the shot when he saw Tim and Sheena kiss.
‘I crawled to his side.’
“I am definitely guilty of second-degree murder,’’ Sheena said during a recent interview at the women’s prison in Chillicothe. “The intent was to take back the gun that was stolen. They could track it down.
“I did not know they had stolen the gun two days prior. I talked about it with Tim. He said: ‘If I can get my gun back, I will leave it alone.’ I decided to take the gun back. They would steal the drugs and money when I got him out of the house.
“It was raining so we couldn’t go on a motorcycle ride. They were on the back porch with the rifle. It was loaded.
“All of sudden, I heard a big bang. We both hit the floor. It was so loud,’’ she said.
With tears coming to her eyes, Sheena said, “I crawled to his side. He was laying there and he was bleeding. I grabbed a towel and a sock, and kept trying to stop the bleeding, but I couldn’t. There was nothing I could do. I tried everything I could do to save him.
“I told him I loved him and the last thing he said was: ‘Father forgive me for all my sins.’ Terry (Banks) grabbed me and took me out of the house. Terry fired the first shot. The second shot was by Matt.’’
About her relationship with Tim, Sheena said, “There were days when he loved me more than you could ever imagine and there were other days when we just fought. I was 15 years old when we got married. He was like a father and a husband to me. He was a wonderful man.
“For somebody with a case like this, the prison is not really the prison. It’s always going to be inside. You will always be in prison. It does not matter whether you are free or locked up, I think you will always have that inside.’’
All three of them gave full confessions to police outlining their roles in the killing. Myers plea bargained and received a total sentence of 67 years on a reduced charge of second-degree murder. He is being held in a state prison in Potosi, but is already eligible for parole. Banks went to trial and was convicted of first-degree murder. He received a sentence of life without parole and is currently in prison at Potosi. Sheena also was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life without parole.
In the appeal for a new trial, Gipson argues that the only evidence presented at Sheena’s trial suggesting there was any premeditated plan to murder Tim Eastburn was from Dennis ‘‘D.J.’’ Johnson, who became a prosecution witness in exchange for an agreement that gave him probation for the charges arising from his involvement in the burglary of Tim Eastburn’s home.
Johnson’s testimony — that he overheard a conversation between Myers, Banks and Sheena Eastburn on the day of the murder in which she claimed that she had been raped by her ex-husband and that she wished he was dead — was bought and paid for by the prosecution’s promise of freedom, according to documents Gipson has filed seeking the new trial. At her trial, Sheena’s public defenders did not make any effort to discredit Johnson’s testimony.
Gipson said the defense at the time also failed to present evidence that he says indicates Sheena was under the control and domination of Banks and that she did not have the mental capacity to mastermind a plot to kill her ex-husband. A pre-trial mental evaluation in the possession of her public defenders at the time of her trial revealed that she had emotional and mental problems, and had an IQ that may have been as low as 80, which is borderline mental retardation.
Gipson alleges that it was Banks, in a fit of jealous rage, who transformed the robbery into a murder.
To bolster that position, Gipson points to Banks’ escape in November 1999 from a maximum-security prison at Cameron in which he had enough domination over a female prison guard to persuade her to bring him a guard’s uniform so that they could escape together.
When the escape occurred, Blevins said about her daughter at Chillicothe: “They put her on lockdown. They put her in the hole. They were going to leave her there until he was captured. The FBI, well, they were all over Sheena. She was the one who told them his dad was in Texas.’’
Banks and the guard who helped him escape were later apprehended near the home of Banks’ father in Texas.
Sheena Eastburn would be held in jail for nearly three years before her trial. Don Schlessman, sheriff of McDonald County at the time, said she proved to be an expensive prisoner.
“She had been in Barry County as a prisoner. When we got the new jail done here, I moved her back,’’ said Schlessman. “She was costing me a lot of money to hold her in Barry County. She was all screwed up. She was heavily medicated.’’
The new McDonald County jail had only one jailer on duty at night — Terrie Zornes, who was 31 at the time.
According to Sheena, Zornes allegedly took her into the property room of the jail and there he raped her two times in 1994, although Schlessman said the sex was “consensual.”
Sheena was a minor in the jail under the authority and control of Zornes.
Said Sheena: “I told my mother that the officer had taken me to a property closet and had sex with me. She flipped out at that point. They locked me down in my cell. Cut off my phone. I wasn’t allowed to talk to anybody. They cut off my visitors.’’
Schlessman said he learned of the incidents from Sheena’s mother, who provided the sheriff with her daughter’s underwear and a towel that she thought might have Zornes’ semen on them.
Activity at the property room was recorded on a surveillance tape. Schlessman said he checked the tape for anything suspicious involving Zornes. He said he did not see anything at first, but a second review of the tape showed something odd with a clock on the wall outside of the property room.
“The hands on the clock jumped forward. A clock doesn’t do that,’’ he said. He believes Zornes tampered with the tape, deleting any evidence that he had taken Sheena to the property room.
About the sex between Zornes and Eastburn, Schlessman said, “It was consensual.’’ When he was asked how he knew that and to define what that meant, he only repeated, “It was consensual.’’
Sheena, in her prison interview, said, “They kept trying to tell me it was consensual. They said: ‘You know you wanted it. You know you miss it.’ It was not like I fought it because there was no way I could have stopped him.
“I have experienced sexual abuse all of my life. I have been raped before in a violent way. After you have been in that situation, you just learn it’s easier to let it go and not fight.’’
Blevins said, “The sheriff came to the Eastburns’ feed mill in Rocky Comfort. He spoke with me and Jigs Eastburn, Tim’s father. We told him they had a problem in the jail. Jigs told him they were using Sheena as their personal whore and he wanted it stopped. That’s when Don went back to the jail. That’s when he pulled the tape.
“I told him I had the evidence — the panties and the towel — and he told me to bring that to the jail. He said they would take it to Missouri Southern in Joplin because they had a lab to test for DNA and that he would get back with me. He never did.
“We also told him the jailers were giving the girls drugs and alcohol out of the evidence room.’’
Schlessman said he presented the tape to Joseph Schoeberl, who was the county’s prosecuting attorney at the time. Schlessman said he sent the towel and panties to the crime lab for analysis.
“I told Schoeberl about it and asked him if he would charge Zornes with misconduct of a jailer,’’ said Schlessman. “I did my job.’’
Schoeberl, now an associate circuit court judge in Jasper County, said, “Here’s what I remember: Schlessman had evidence of some tampering with a jail clock and there had been an allegation of impropriety. I told Schlessman there was sufficient evidence to terminate his (Zornes’) employment. But to charge him, I would need DNA from his semen or an eyewitness. I needed corroborating evidence.’’
He said he was concerned with Sheena’s believability as to what happened without corroborating evidence.
When asked whether charges were not filed against Zornes because Sheena’s defense attorney could have used that in a plea deal, Schoeberl said, “Yes, they could have used that in a plea deal. But that had nothing to do with it. We did not have enough evidence to charge Zornes.’’
Schlessman said the towel and panties came back from the crime lab with no evidence that would implicate Zornes. Eastburn’s mother and other observers at the time said Zornes was removed from the jail and briefly served as a road deputy. Schlessman denied that, and said, “I did not promote him to a road deputy. I fired his ass.’’
Schlessman said he corrected the problem in the jail by convincing the McDonald County Commission to hire another jailer for night duty.
The alleged rapes occurred in February 1994. A short time after that, Blevins got a call from a matron at the jail who asked her to bring a pregnancy test kit to the jail. Blevins was never told the results of the test.
“After I did that, they took her to the county doctor at the time,’’ said Blevins, who did not feel comfortable disclosing the doctor’s name or where he lived in the county.
“They took her to the doctor that morning. That night, I got a call. She had been taken to the hospital in Neosho. She was hemorrhaging (from her vagina). They said for me to come alone to the emergency room at the hospital. They told me they were doing something to stop the bleeding. They would not tell me anything else.
“I spent the night in the hospital. I stayed with her. She was out of it most of the time. She would come in and out. I don’t know if she really knew what was going on and what had happened to her. It was clear to me she had become pregnant and that she had an abortion — two and two makes four.’’
Schlessman said, “That never happened. She had female problems.’’
Blevins replied, “She had never had those problems before.’’
Sheena, in her prison interview, said, “I was sent to a doctor’s office. The next thing I know later on was that I was in a hospital having surgery. Nobody told me I was pregnant or not pregnant.
“I don’t remember if anything happened. At the time, I was so out of it. I never speak about it. It would not be fair to say it happened. I want to be as honest as possible. My mother is convinced it did. I cannot honestly say that because I don’t really remember.’’
When Eastburn was returned to jail, Blevins said, “They put her on birth-control pills after that. I asked: ‘Why is she on birth-control pills?’ I never got an answer.’’
Blevins said she remembers what happened to her daughter as if it had happened yesterday.
“When you live that, you don’t forget it. It’s absolutely embedded in your head and your heart,’’ she said. “I don’t have to lie. I lived it every step of the way.
“After I worked at the feed mill, I visited Sheena from 1 to 3 p.m. every day at the jail. I was very much in her life. She was a kid. She was scared to death and drugged up on anti-anxiety medication. She did not know what was going on,’’ she said.
“The deputies intimidated me to no end. I would sit in the office area there and they would say: ‘You need to just forget this.’ They would talk about murder suspects in jail who tried to run and got shot, or they would talk about someone somewhere who had hung herself because she was up on a murder charge.
“They wanted that all hush, hush. They never gave Sheena an opportunity to file anything. They told us it was over. They said he (Zornes) was married and his wife was going to have a baby. Why would she want to tear up a happy home?
“These were veiled threats that if she did not shut up, something would happen to her. They did not come out and say it, but you knew where they were going with it. That’s what I was afraid of. You don’t forget those things.’’
Blevins worked at the feed mill and helped the Eastburns, Jigs and his wife, Ellen, because they had lost their son.
“I felt so bad for the Eastburns. I cleaned the house where Timmy was killed. I did not want them to see that. I completely redid the whole inside of that house for them.
“My husband and I worked for Jigs and Ellen — whatever they needed done, we did, for the next 13 years because we felt so bad they had lost their child. The murder had taken their hand away from them. We were close with the Eastburns for the next 13 years.
“All Jigs would have to do was call us and we would go and do whatever he needed to have done — bring in the cattle, whatever. We were just four parents trying to get through it.’’
Jigs Eastburn died in 2007. Ellen Inez Eastburn died last year.
The truth about the alleged rape of Eastburn came out last year after Zornes was charged with making sexual advances to a 14-year-old McDonald County girl. That case was investigated by Lorie Martinez-Howard, a detective with the sheriff’s department, and who had worked with Schlessman.
Howard learned of the alleged rape of Eastburn through Schlessman, who works as a reserve officer with the department. Howard said Schlessman was aware of Sheena’s plan to appeal her conviction on the murder charge.
Said Howard: “I had a meeting with her over the phone. She was in a secure room at the prison (in Chillicothe). I had told her about the allegations I had. I asked her a little bit about the history of her case and she gave me the story. It matched perfectly with what I had in the case file. She told me that she was being held on a murder charge at the time and that nothing had come of the other.
“I told her if she would help us we would be able to file a charge against him (Zornes) for what had happened to her. She agreed to testify against him.’’
Sheena, in her prison interview, said, “I felt relieved that somebody finally believed me.”
The videotape showing the clock also was in the case file, which was still in storage in the evidence locker, Howard said.
According to a probable cause statement Howard filed last year after her investigation, “Terrie (Zornes) had complete authority over inmate Sheena Eastburn and her environment and welfare at the detention center. Sheena was ordered into the property room for sexual purposes and due to her confined status lacked the ability, authority and mental capacity to resist for fearing for her safety and well being.”
Jonathan Pierce, county prosecutor, filed a forcible rape charge against Zornes in 2011 for what allegedly happened with Sheena in the jail. Zornes, in a plea deal, entered a guilty plea involving the 14-year-old girl in exchange for a dismissal of the rape charge involving Sheena. Zornes was sentenced to four years in prison.
Sheena said, “I felt more joy that the young girl would not have to get on the stand. It helped me to think I was helping someone else because no one helped me. Justice has been done.’’
‘We weren’t prepared’
Gipson, Eastburn’s attorney, claims he reached a deal with Pierce to reopen the first-degree murder conviction against Sheena. Gipson’s goal was to have the conviction overturned, citing inadequate representation and abandonment of counsel at the time of her trial. Gipson wanted Sheena’s conviction reduced to second-degree murder so that she could be sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole.
Two hearings were held on the motion to reopen the case.
In the first hearing in early October of last year, Eastburn testified that she had no lengthy meetings with either of her public defenders before her trial in 1995. She said she had “no understanding of what was happening in court” at the time of her trial.
Also testifying before Circuit Judge Tim Perigo in McDonald County Circuit Court was Frank Yankoviz, who was Eastburn’s assistant public defender at the time of the trial. Yankoviz told the court that he became involved in Eastburn’s defense about two weeks before the trial as an assistant to Victor Head, district public defender. He said Eastburn’s case was his first major felony case.
Gipson asked Yankoviz whether he thought Eastburn received a fair trial. Yankoviz said, “No.” When he was asked whether he was in over his head at the time of the trial, Yankoviz said, “Yes.”
Yankoviz also said he felt “worse about this case than any other case” in his 20-year career as a public defender.
Tests showed that Sheena 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 first IQ score was a 91. Her second score was an 80. Mild mental retardation is an IQ of 70 to 75. Yankoviz said he was never informed about the results of the IQ tests. Had he known about the test results, Yankoviz said, he could have shaped a defense strategy around diminished capacity.
“In hindsight, we weren’t prepared to try this case,” said Yankoviz.
In the second hearing held earlier this year, Blevins said: “We told the sheriff and her public defender that she had been raped. I told them I could not end up raising a baby. We wanted it stopped.”
Blevins told the court that she and Jigs Eastburn went to Head, who was the public defender and now an associate circuit judge in Barry County, and alleged that Sheena had been raped in the jail. Head testified that he did not recall that meeting or that anyone had ever told him that Sheena had been raped in the jail before her trial.
Gipson challenged Head’s representation of Sheena, saying he missed or ignored opportunities to convince the jury that Sheena was guilty of second-degree murder instead of murder in the first degree.
“If you had known that — that she had been raped — you could have used that to her advantage,” Gipson said. “You could have reached a plea deal to keep this ugly secret quiet.”
Blevins said, “When we told him (Head) that, he told us the sheriff is going to handle it. That was the answer we got.”
Continuing his attack of Head’s representation of Sheena, Gipson said the IQ tests also could have been used to show that Eastburn was incapable of being the mastermind behind her ex-husband’s death as the prosecution had contended.
Head said he had significant contact with Sheena before the trial and that there was no indication she was mentally retarded. He said it was evident that she had emotional problems at the time.
Gipson produced a document that Head had in his possession at the time of the trial that showed Sheena 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 also claims Head could have used that report to show that Sheena was “under the substantial domination” of Banks, the gunman who had stolen Tim Eastburn’s rifle and used it to kill him.
The report also said Sheena had been raped as a child and that she was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Gipson asked Head whether he recalled that. He said he did not.
Gipson also asked Head why he did not call Sheena’s psychological evaluator to testify about the rape or that she was suffering from PTSD. Head said he could not recall why he did not call the evaluator to the witness stand.
Head, who repeatedly said he could not recall details of the case, said: “I cannot say whether that could have helped in her defense. We did the best we could do at trial. I can’t say what would have happened if we might have changed this or that. We spent countless hours on the case.”
At both hearings, Pierce has disputed a contention by Gipson that he agreed to reopen the case for a new trial. Gipson has accused Pierce of backtracking on his position.
Surviving members of the Tim Eastburn family, Bobby Eastburn, Leonard Eastburn and Susie Jones, do not want the case reopened.
Bobby Eastburn, who lives near Rocky Comfort, said, “We have been keeping track of it. We don’t like what is going on. She worked hard to get in there and we don’t want her out of prison.
“My brother won’t get a second chance. She’s apparently trying to get a second chance. They say she was suffering from PTSD because of her childhood and that she was not very smart. She manipulated the situation to kill Tim. She was the mastermind behind it. She was intelligent enough to set the whole situation up.’’
While the appeal was happening, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a decision that might also impact the case. The court said laws allowing juveniles under age 18 who were convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison without parole violate the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. Sheena Eastburn was 17 when the murder occurred.
Perigo, the circuit judge in McDonald County, has asked both attorneys to file with the court finding of facts on the motion to reopen Sheena’s trial, and whether her conviction should be overturned in light of the Supreme Court decision. He is to issue a decision on Aug. 21.
Thinking about freedom
What would she do if she were to be paroled from prison?
Said Sheena: “I would go to school to become a certified personal trainer. I would love to minister to juveniles and help them know that the choices we do make have a consequence. I really do want to help people. I know that sounds crazy. But I want to help and let them know there are other choices out there no matter what your life is like because I had a bad life and childhood, but I still had choices. I did not realize that then.’’
While in prison, she has taken every class that has been offered to educate and improve herself.
“I’m an aerobics instructor and a senior dog trainer. I have trained 11 dogs for veterans. I have a dog named ‘Gus’ now. He’s a little piece of freedom for me,’’ she said.
“I teach about the impacted victims of crime, child abuse, sexual abuse, domestic violence and homicide. Each chapter tells you what the consequences are for your crime and that we leave a slew of victims in our wake.
“I speak with women who are on probation to explain to them what it is like to be in prison. I try to better myself all of the time,’’ she said. “If I had remained the same, then I would have learned nothing from this terrible tragedy. So now, though I cannot bring him back, I have changed my life in memory of Tim.
“You know, everybody says they find God in jail, but He has absolutely changed my life. These doors have opened because God has seen this change in me.’’