- Associated Press - Wednesday, September 23, 2015

CASPER, Wyo. (AP) - A state judge on Wednesday ordered Dale Wayne Eaton to undergo a mental evaluation to determine if he’s competent to face a new death penalty hearing for the 1988 murder of a Montana woman.

Over the objections of Eaton’s lawyers, District Judge Daniel Forgey ordered Eaton to be evaluated at the state prison in Rawlins.

Eaton, 70, was Wyoming’s only death row inmate for several years for killing Lisa Kimmell of Billings, Montana. U.S. District Judge Alan B. Johnson overturned Eaton’s death sentence last year, finding Eaton’s public defenders didn’t allow a jury to consider mitigating evidence.

Kimmell disappeared while driving alone across Wyoming. Fishermen later found her body in the North Platte River. The investigation into her death stalled until 2002, when DNA testing matched Eaton to the crime. Eaton was in federal prison at the time for an unrelated case.

Investigators later unearthed Kimmell’s car on Eaton’s remote property in Moneta. At his 2004 trial, prosecutors said he kept her captive in a school bus on the property and raped her before killing her.

Eaton, a heavyset man with a shaved head, attended Wednesday’s hearing amid heavy security. He wore orange inmate clothing with his arms chained to his waist. He didn’t address the judge, but sometimes whispered to one of his lawyers, Terry Harris of Cheyenne.

Johnson, the federal judge, gave state prosecutors the option of staging a new death penalty hearing or having Eaton serve life in prison without parole. Eaton’s lawyers have appealed that order, saying too much time has gone by for Eaton to be able to present testimony from people who knew him when he was a free man.

Sean O’Brien, a Missouri lawyer who specializes in death penalty cases, argued on Wednesday that it’s premature for Eaton to undergo a mental health evaluation while his federal appeal is pending. Assistant Casper District Attorney Kevin Taheri said that the federal court hasn’t yet barred the state from proceeding with a new death penalty hearing.

Forgey noted that Johnson’s order in the case last year laid out detailed findings about Eaton’s personal history, including medical professionals’ concerns about his mental health. He said that established that there’s reason to believe that Eaton suffers from mental illness or incompetency and needs to be evaluated.

Johnson also is considering whether the state lost its chance to pursue the death penalty a second time because it didn’t comply with an order to appoint attorneys for Eaton who are not associated with the Wyoming Public Defender’s Office.

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