Albuquerque Journal

Monday, March 05, 2007

High Court Denies State Appeal in 1982 Murder Case

Associated Press

WASHINGTON The U.S. Supreme Court today turned down New Mexico's bid to reinstate a man's murder conviction in the 1982 killing of an oil field worker near Carlsbad.

The nation's highest court rejected an appeal of a New Mexico Supreme Court decision overturning the conviction of Ralph Rodney Earnest, 59, who spent more than 24 years in prison in the killing of David Eastman, 31, before being freed last September.

"I'm feeling good today," said J. Thomas Sullivan of Little Rock, Ark., an attorney representing Earnest.

"This was a long, drawn-out case. The New Mexico courts proved to me once again the basic notion of fairness," Sullivan said.

"There's no further proceedings in the case. End of story," said New Mexico Assistant Attorney General Steven Suttle.

State District Judge Jay Forbes in January 2005 tossed out Earnest's convictions of murder, kidnapping and other crimes because of a statement to police by co-defendant Phillip Boeglin, who then refused to testify at Earnest's original trial.

The state Supreme Court affirmed Forbes' ruling, saying a tape-recorded statement from Boeglin could not be used as evidence because Earnest had no opportunity to cross-examine his accuser.

Boeglin, who is serving life in prison in Eastman's death, again refused to testify shortly before Earnest's new trial was to begin last year. Prosecutors said that made the case impossible.

Murder, kidnapping and conspiracy charges against Earnest were then dismissed. Earnest pleaded no contest to the only remaining charge, possession of methamphetamine with intent to distribute and was sentenced to three years in prison time he already served.

Eastman's body was discovered Feb. 12, 1982, by a passer-by who found him in a ditch beside N.M. 31, his throat slashed and a gunshot wound to his head.

Earnest, originally sentenced to life imprisonment plus 22 years in the killing, appealed.

The state Supreme Court overturned his convictions in 1985, saying Boeglin's statement violated Earnest's rights to confront his accuser. In 1986, the U.S. Supreme Court vacated that ruling and sent the case back. The state justices reinstated Earnest's convictions in 1987.

The U.S. Supreme Court subsequently ruled in 2004 that out-of-court statements to police such as the tape-recorded statement against Earnest cannot be used as evidence if defendants had no opportunity to cross examine their accusers.

That prompted another appeal by Earnest and the state court ruling overturning his convictions.