Judge signs death warrant for Utahn involved in 1988 murder of gay man

A judge signed the death warrant for Michael Anthony Archuleta on Feb. 8, setting the date for his execution by firing squad on April 5. The order, signed by 4th District Judge Donald Eyre, is the third of its kind in setting an execution date for Archuleta, 49, who was convicted for the 1988 slaying of Gordon Ray Church, a gay Southern Utah University student.

During the trial, Archuleta was named the primary perpetrator and received the death penalty, while his partner to the crime, Lance Conway Wood, was sentenced to life in prison.

Church met Archuleta and Wood at a convenience store parking lot on Nov. 21, 1988. Wood, a blond 18-year-old at the time, 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. The Salt Lake Tribune-veteran reporter, Chris Jorgensen, called it the most appalling story he had ever covered and possibly the worst murder in Utah history.

In May, Archuleta asked that his case to be reopened, citing his former attorneys were ineffective. He and his lawyers said he deserves a new trial in light of a 2009 statement from his co-defendant who took primary responsibility for the murder.

The conviction has been upheld by the Utah Supreme Court but is likely to be appealed to federal court.

Seth Bracken

Seth Bracken is the editor of QSaltLake

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