Utah Supreme Court denies appeal from death-row inmate in hate crime

The Utah Supreme Court denied a request from Michael Anthony Archuleta to have his 1988 hate-crime murder case reopened.

Archuleta, who is on death row, has made five appeals for his conviction for the murder of Gordon Church, a gay Southern Utah University theater student.

During the initial trial, he was named the primary perpetrator to the crime and received the death penalty, while his partner to 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 in which Wood said he was the primary assailant. He argued that Archuleta was present during the murder, but did not take part.

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

The three men drove up Cedar Canyon where Archuleta put a knife to Church’s back and cut him. Church broke away and ran. Wood tackled him and broke his arm. Archuleta cut him again on the neck and then forced him over the hood of his car and raped him.

Archuleta pulled tire chains from 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 raped anally 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 unanimously voted to deny Archuleta’s appeal.

“We find none of Archuleta’s numerous claims in either of these appeals availing, and we accordingly reaffirm his conviction for first-degree felony murder and sentence of death,” the justices wrote.

Seth Bracken

Seth Bracken is the editor of QSaltLake

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