The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

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August 23, 2012

Future of Sheena Eastburn case to be decided by McDonald County Circuit Court

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.

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.

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