Michael Archuleta Utah Death Row

Michael Archuleta utah death row

Michael Archuleta was sentenced to death by the State of Utah for the murder of a young man. According to court documents Michael Archuleta and Lance Wood would pick up the victim, Gordon Ray Church, at a gas station on November 21, 1988. The victim would be raped and stuffed into the vehicle of the car and driven over seventy miles to a remote location where the young man was tortured then beat to death with a car jack. The victim was buried in a shallow grave. Both Michael Archuleta and Lance Wood would be arrested and later convicted. Lance Wood was sentenced to life in prison and Michael Archuleta would be sentenced to death

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Michael Archuleta has been on death row for 28 years.

Since he was sentenced to death in 1989 for the brutal murder of Gordon Church, Archuleta, now 54, has spent his days waiting for his own demise in a cell at the Utah State Prison. 

The prosecutors, investigators and witnesses have all moved on with their lives. Many have moved away or retired, forgetting many of the details of the crime as the years fade away. 

But Michael Archuleta hasn’t. Instead, the convicted murderer has spent the time fighting his own fate in the court system, doing everything possible to delay his seemingly inevitable execution

His case isn’t unusual, though. Nationwide, a startling trend has emerged as the time between conviction and execution continues to grow with each passing year. 

Archuleta was just 25 years old when he murdered 28-year-old Southern Utah University student Gordon Ray Church on Nov. 21, 1988. 

According to trial testimony, Archuleta and 20-year-old Lance Conway Wood had picked up Church at a Cedar City gas station before driving him to Cedar Canyon where Archuleta raped him after Church revealed he was gay. 

They then stuffed Church’s still-conscious body into the back of his own car to drive him more than 70 miles to a remote location in Millard County. The brutality continued there as Archuleta attached jumper cables to Church’s testicles, using the car battery to shock him. He was also sodomized with a tire iron, beat to death with a car jack and buried in a shallow grave. 

Injuries to Church’s skull were so severe that a medical examiner later testified that they appeared similar to if his head had been run over by a truck.
Following two separate trials, Archuleta and Wood each were convicted of capital murder.

Wood was sentenced to life in prison. Archuleta was sentenced to death.  

Over the past 28 years, Archuleta has never actually come close to execution.

The case has been bogged down in appeals since the initial conviction in the Fourth District Court in 1989. The Utah Supreme Court upheld the conviction shortly after. A second appeal claiming his trial attorneys and first set of appeal lawyers were ineffective was also rejected. 

Archuleta’s former attorney, James Slavens, asked the Utah Supreme Court for a new trial — or at least a new penalty phase — in 2011 after Wood took primary responsibility for the murder. In the statement, Wood allegedly confessed to the crime without hesitation.

In this version, Archuleta wasn’t an active participant in the torture or the murder — he just moved the body. Slavens argued Wood’s confession could have swayed a jury to opt for a life sentence, instead of death 

Additionally, Slavens claimed Archuleta’s previous attorneys could have easily obtained the affidavit from Wood, which he stated was another indication of ineffective assistance.

The Utah Supreme Court ultimately denied the request. 

In 2012, his scheduled firing squad execution was inevitably stayed to pursue a federal appeal. 

The case took a new turn when a petition filed in federal court claimed Archuleta was ineligible for execution because he was “intellectually disabled.” 

“We have presented evidence to the court that Michael does have an intellectual disability, therefore he has a merited claim that he should be exempt from execution,” David Christensen, former lead attorney in the case from the Utah Federal Defender’s Office, said.

Christensen resigned from the Federal Public Defender’s Office this month. 

Christensen’s claim wasn’t a valid defense until 2002, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Atkins v. Virginia that intellectually disabled defendants were not eligible for the death penalty as it was considered to be cruel and unusual punishment because the deficiencies generally associated with disabilities are known to reduce culpability.

Archuleta’s mental health history was investigated extensively during trial preparation, but it was never delved into at length during the trial or penalty phase. A board-certified forensic psychologist did not uncover any brain damage or recommend any possible lines of defense based on his mental health or intellectual levels. Some evidence was presented about a previous diagnosis of low intellectual functioning, though. 

Court documents reveal multiple red flags in his youth. He was born into “deplorable conditions” to a 16-year-old mother. She was immediately placed in reform school, leaving the child to be raised by “abusive grandparents.” He was later taken into custody by the Charitable Trust and Custody Services of the LDS Church at the age of three. The child was “in a filthy state” and covered in cigarette burns. He was later placed with a foster family that eventually adopted him. 

As a child and teenager, Archuleta suffered from ADHD and was sent multiple times to the Utah State Hospital and other mental health facilities. He may have been sexually assaulted during one of these stays, court filings reveal. 

During the first post-conviction review in state court, a psychologist evaluated Archuleta for any mental health defenses and she was unable to find any evidence of intellectual disability. IQ tests have generally placed Archuleta in the mid-80s. A score of 100 is average, while 70 is often the marker for intellectual disability.

Another petition found Archuleta suffered from a neurocognitive impairment that heavily affected his ability to write and spell.

The state district court refused to hear the claim on the grounds the defense had made a tactical decision not to present it when they originally could have. State law requires the claim to be brought up as soon as it is discovered, according to Andrew Peterson, assistant solicitor general for the Utah Attorney General’s Office. 

Peterson, who has been on the case since 2013, believes the intellectual disability claim is likely just an attempt to slow down the appeals process.

“He’s never presented evidence that he was intellectually disabled,” Peterson explained. “His attorneys sort of guess he is.”

The Utah Attorney General’s Office agreed to have him evaluated at one point, but the court ruled against it. 

“The court wouldn’t even allow the expert to go into the prison to evaluate him because he’s not even allowed to present all of the information because of the timeliness issue,” Peterson said.

The matter was ultimately sent back to the Utah Supreme Court for review as federal law prohibits the court from hearing any claim that hasn’t already been presented to the lower courts. Several other claims had also been raised and the state moved to separate them from the intellectual disability matter to proceed separately.

Prior to his resignation, Christensen had told The Spectrum & Daily News in an email that they were still briefing the issues on appeal to the Utah Supreme Court. Oral arguments have not been scheduled at this time, but those familiar with the case estimate they could take place as early as this fall. 

Archuleta’s new public defender, Charlotte Merrill, did not respond to a request for comment.

There’s no clear answer as to when — or if — Archuleta will ever face execution. The appeals could go on for years.

“At this point it’s so uncertain,” Peterson said. “There are other capital cases where I think I can give a narrow timeframe of how long it will take. This is one where I don’t feel like I can give a very narrow band.”

Archuleta’s situation isn’t uncommon, though.

The average delay between crime and execution has increased at a rate of almost one for every three years, according to University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill professor Frank Baumgartner, author of “The Decline of the Death Penalty and the Discovery of Innocence.”

The reasons behind this differs from state to state, but Baumgartner explained the increase correlates with a rise in the amount of legal resources provided to death row inmates for appeals.

“The United States Supreme Court has ruled the state must provide better trained attorneys, access to investigators and mitigation specialists,” Baumgartner said. “That’s lengthened the process out and increased the likelihood that the death sentence will even be overturned.”


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