Utahn in gay-slaying case appeals ruling

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Death row inmate, Michael Archuleta wants his 1980s gay-slaying case reopened, claiming his former attorneys were ineffective.

Archuleta was sentenced to death for his involvement in a brutal 1988 rape, torture and murder of a young gay man, Gordon Ray Church, in Southern Utah. During the initial trial, he was named as the primary perpetrator of the horrendous crime and received the death penalty, while his companion in the crime, Lance Conway Wood, was sentenced to life in prison. During the trial it was mentioned on several occasions that Wood was an active Mormon and an Eagle Scout.

Archuleta’s new attorney, James Slavens, asked the Utah Supreme Court to send the case back to court for a new trial, or at least a new sentencing. Slavens said he has an affidavit where Wood said he was the primary actor. However, the death penalty could still be considered for Archuleta for his involvement, even if he wasn’t the primary instigator, under Utah law.

Church met Archuleta and Wood at a convenience store parking lot on Nov. 21, 1988. Wood, a blond 18-year-old Utah boy, approached Church, who was sitting in his white 1978 Ford Thunderbird, and asked if he wanted company. Church said yes.

After driving around the town the three young men drove up Cedar Canyon where Archuleta put a knife to Church’s back and cut him. Church broke away and began running. Wood tackled him and broke his arm. Archuleta cut him again on the neck and then forced him over the hood of his car where he raped him.

Archuleta found tire chains in the trunk of the car. He bound Church with the chains and the pair hooked the jumper cables to Church’s testicles and then to the car battery. Then they threw him into the trunk of his car, drove him to a remote location and began beating him with a tire iron. Church was anally raped with the tire iron and his liver was punctured. They dragged his half-naked, dead body off the side of the road and covered it with tree branches and dirt.

The pair got back in Church’s car and drove to Salt Lake City. Fearful of Archuleta, Wood went to his parole officer and confessed the entire crime. The details and guilt of the two participants were not under question in the trials. However, the two are disputing who played the more active role in the rape and murder.

During the original trial it took the coroner two and a half hours to share all the terrible details of the trauma done to Church’s brutally beaten body and how he died. The original court judge put a gag order on reporters because of how violent and terrible the details of the crime were. Veteran Salt Lake Tribune reporter, Chris Jorgensen, called it the most appalling story he had ever covered and possibly the worst murder in Utah history.

The Utah Supreme Court has upheld the ruling against Church and has denied a second appeal by Archuleta when he claimed his first set of lawyers was ineffective. If the court again denies this appeal, there will most likely be appeals brought before federal courts.

For more information about the case and Church’s life and family, please read our QSaltLake historical report.

Seth Bracken

Seth Bracken is the editor of QSaltLake

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