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A shot in the dark

Southwest Missouri woman serving life sentence for murder gets decision from state supreme court

Updated June 25, 2013 by Dowe Quick:  A McDonald County, Missouri woman serving a life sentence for murder gets no relief from the Missouri Supreme Court.

It's the case of Sheena Eastburn, convicted of participating in the 1992 murder of her ex-husband Tim Eastburn, when Sheena was 17 years old.  She's currently serving a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole.  However, in another case last year, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that sentence is unconstitutionally cruel for crimes committed before age 18.

Eastburn's attorney hoped that ruling would open the door for the possibility of a new sentence in her case.

But on Tuesday, in a unanimous decision, the Missouri Supreme Court rejected the arguments.

In an interview two month ago, I asked Eastburn about this possibility.  

"I came to that realization a long time ago and I gave it to God and I got peace," she told me at the time.

Our original report is below.  You can also read Tuesday's court ruling by clicking here.

 

Reported April 30, 2013 by Dowe Quick

Arguments before the Missouri Supreme Court could have repercussions in dozens of old murder cases.  Missouri is one of a number of states that impose a sentence of 'life without parole' for young offenders convicted of first degree murder.

In an Alabama case last year, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a sentence of "life without parole" is unconstitutionally cruel for crimes committed before age 18.  Now, Missouri justices must decide what to do with the state's 84 juvenile offenders who are already serving that sentence.

On April 30th, the Missouri Supreme Court heard arguments in three cases that could set a precedent for the others.  One of the cases before the court, concerns a 1992 murder in southwest Missouri.  We took an in-depth look at that case in a special report we titled "A shot in the dark".

To hear the oral arguments as presented to the Missouri Supreme Court on April 30, click here.


Part 1 - Life without parole

THE SCENE

Deep in the wooded hills of McDonald County, Missouri, beyond the overgrowth of untended vegetation, a stone home shows the decay from years of disuse.   A retired Missouri Highway Patrol homicide investigator climbs the stairs to the front porch.  Then, for the first time in more than 20 years, Miles Parks steps inside.

The living room and adjacent kitchen look have changed a bit since Parks was last here.  Musty cardboard boxes and debris fill the spaces that once held furniture.  Only dim light filters through the translucent plastic sheeting that covers the windows.  But Parks can still envision the scene as it appeared in 1992.  The window where a gunshot shattered a pane.  The hole where a bullet lodged in a wall.  On the floor between the two is the spot where a man died at the age of 22.

The victim had been shot through the window and Parks believes a teenager who was inside the home planned the whole thing.

Parks sums it up simply:  "This was a brutal, cold-blooded, premeditated murder."

 

THE MURDER

The evidence had pointed to three teenage suspects:  18-year-old Matt Myers, 19-year-old Terry Banks and Banks' lover, Sheena Eastburn, the teenage, ex-wife of the victim.  Sheena had been just 15 years old when she married Tim Eastburn, and was 16 when they divorced.  Sheena was barely 17 on that November night in 1992 when her ex-husband was shot to death.

Investigators determined that both Myers and Banks shot Tim Eastburn and that either shot would have been lethal.  In police interviews, the two gunmen and another witness maintained that Sheena plotted the murder.

Sheena claimed otherwise.

More than 20 years later Sheena Eastburn lives at the Missouri Correctional Facility in Chillicothe and still maintains she was never a killer.  "There was no reason for Tim to die," Sheena says.  "None."

Sheena says she agreed to participate in a robbery but never a murder.  "I was supposed to go down there and get him out of the house, then we were going rob him for drugs and money."

Sheena says she and her ex-husband had maintained a sexual relationship, even after Sheena began seeing Banks.  She says as Banks and Myers watched through the back porch window, waiting for the opportunity to steal from the home, Tim kissed her.

Sheena says Banks fired a shot in a moment of jealousy.  The bullet pierced Tim's upper body.

"We both dropped and when we dropped I crawled around to where he was,"  Sheena pauses before continuing, "and I tried to stop the bleeding.  There was nothing I could do."

Jurors didn't buy it.

Sheena was convicted of first degree murder, a crime that carries only two possible penalties in Missouri.  Since the prosecution didn't seek the death penalty, the only sentencing option was life without parole.

"I still thought that I might get out of prison someday,"  Sheena says.  "I didn't realize that life without parole actually meant life without parole."

 

THE ARGUMENTS

At a law office in Kansas City, Sheena Eastburn's attorney, Kent Gipson,  prepares arguments to present before the Missouri Supreme Court.  Gipson has been doing this type of work for close to 30 years.

"I think if you look across the spectrum of persons convicted of first degree murder, I'd say her level of culpability is among the lowest I've ever seen", Gipson says.

Gipson believes his client now has a real shot at freedom.  In an Alabama case last year the  U.S. Supreme court ruled that a sentence of life without parole is unconstitutionally cruel for crimes committed before age 18.  Gipson believes the courts will decide that ruling must be applied retroactively for people like Sheena who are serving time for murders committed as juveniles.

If Missouri Supreme Court justices overturn Sheena's sentence, as Gipson believes they will, the judicial system will still have to determine the procedure for her re-sentencing.  The process could go back to circuit court, either before a judge or jury; or an agreement could be worked out with the prosecutor for a negotiated sentence.

Since Missouri's first degree murder statute doesn't allow a penalty of less than life without parole Gipson will argue that Eastburn should be re-sentenced on the next lowest crime, second-degree murder.  That would mean her possible sentence could range from a minimum of 10 years to a maximum of life in prison.  But under the new guideline she would have a chance at parole.

"I think inevitably she will be given a parolable sentence and will be given a chance to get out of prison," Gipson says.

Sheena could get a revised sentence that makes her eligible for parole immediately, or only after serving several more years.  In either case, Sheena might still have to convince a parole board to grant her freedom.

Miles Parks, the retired investigator, believes Sheena should remain in prison for the rest of her life.

"Sheena Eastburn was old enough to get a driver's license, old enough to get married, old enough to know the difference between right and wrong," Parks says.  "What do you think is the appropriate punishment?"

 

LONGING

Twenty years of incarceration have taught Sheena Eastburn to temper her hope with caution.

"You never count on anything completely until it happens because you can't let yourself get your hopes too high and then be devastated all the time", Sheena says.  "It's just a hard way to live."

Sheena gazes out the window of the prison visiting room to a view that barely changes --  the buildings of the prison complex, a fence, and a line of trees along a flat horizon.

"Nothing to see," she says.

The wider world out there has changed considerably over the past 20 years.  Since inmates aren't given access to most electronic devices Sheena has never held a cell phone or surfed the Internet. She only recently made the transition from cassette audio tapes to CD's.   iPods are out of the question.

Sheena says she most misses simpler pleasures:  "...going down to the refrigerator in the middle of the night and being able to get what you want.  Walking barefoot on grass somewhere that it doesn't say 'out of bounds'.  Going outside after dark."

"Just taking time to experience free, fresh air,"  Sheena's smile broadens as she adds, "I know it smells different on the other side."


Part II - The Families

At the prison in Chillicothe Missouri, Sheena Eastburn recalls the day she heard the verdict.

"I really believed I was going to get second degree murder and I was accountable for that," Sheena says.  "I was okay with that."

Sheena was stunned when jurors found her guilty on a more serious charge, murder in the first degree.

"All I could hear was my mother in the courtroom," Sheena says.  "She was wailing."

 

SHEENA'S MOTHER

Nearly 300 miles to the south at a home in Stella, Missouri, Sheena's mother recalls the same moment.

"I couldn't control it," says Alica Bleavins.  "When that's your child, and your only child, and your hands are tied."

Bleavins knew immediately that her daughter would be sentenced to life in prison without parole.   Now, 20 years after the crime and 17 years after the verdict  Bleavins says she still can't accept that the sentence is final.

A small room of Bleavin's home contains Sheena's bed, covered with various craft projects that Sheena has made in prison over the years.  Bleavins, who talks with her daughter by phone almost daily, knows Sheena would never return to live permanently in the area where Tim's family still lives.  But Bleavins takes comfort in preparing the home for the possibility that her daughter might someday visit.

The bedroom is a pale yellow, painted to represent the welcome of a yellow ribbon.  The photos on display include one that shows Sheena wearing a graduation gown in prison, taken the day Sheena received her high school diploma as an inmate.

 

SHEENA TODAY

In the prison visiting room, Sheena points to a photo pinned to a bulletin board.  It' shows Dottie, the large, mixed-breed dog that shares a cell with Sheena and her three roommates.

Sheena has a full-time prison job as an obedience trainer of rescue dogs.  She's also a certified aerobics instructor, works with disabled inmates, and teaches victim impact classes.

"She's obviously not the same person she was when she was 17 years old," says Sheena's attorney, Kent Gipson.  "I don't think any of us are."

Gipson says his client has won the support of prison staff who would probably go to bat for her if her case goes before a parole board.

"She is probably the most ideal candidate for parole any of them have ever seen,"  he says.

"Maturity and education, things like that, should be taken into account and that's all we're really asking," Gipson says, "that she be given the opportunity to prove to the parole board and other people that she deserves a second chance."

Although Sheena hopes for an eventual parole hearing, she knows the prospect angers some.

"Unlike for me, I can appeal the decisions to do things, Tim can not," Sheena says, then pauses before adding, "his family can not."

 

TIM'S BROTHERS

"My brother is still in the grave and will be from here on out," says Tim's brother, Leonard Eastburn.  "She should be locked up the same way, forever."

Brothers, Leonard and Tommy Eastburn still operate the family feed mill  where Tim worked until the day he died.   The mill is only a mile or so from the home where Tim died.   The home is now used only for storage and is owned by another brother, Bobby.

The brothers have followed Sheena's case closely enough to believe that she will eventually get a parole hearing, and ultimately, freedom.  But if given the chance the brothers say they will tell a parole board how they feel.

"Because she's evil,"  Leonard says, emphasizing the final word.

"Why else would she want to kill somebody who's never done any harm to her?" Tommy adds.

"There are people in this world that are evil and they will hurt you, " Tommy says.  "There's no rhyme or reason for it.  They just will."

Sheena says she knows she could never take away their pain, but says she would like to tell Tim's family how sorry she is.

"I realized a lot of the things I'd done destroyed a lot of lives," Sheena says.  "It wasn't even about my life.  It was about my victim's family, my family, the boy's family."

"I don't ever expect them to forgive me, because I don't know if I could either," Sheena says.

"But I hope that one day they find peace and I know that one day if they ever want to talk to me about what happened, that's okay."

Like her daughter, Alica Bleavins says she often thinks of Tim's family.

"I'm truly sorry for their loss,"  Bleavins says.  "But we all lost that day.  We all lost."


Postscript

The Missouri Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Sheena Eastburn's case on April 30.  Her attorney expects a ruling in the next 30 to 60 days.

Like Sheena, gunman Terry Banks was sentenced to life in prison without parole.  However, the federal and state Supreme Court rulings will not apply to Banks because he was over 18 at the time of the murder.

Matt Myers, who fired a second shot, plead guilty to second degree murder.  Myers was sentenced to 67 years in prison and is currently eligible for parole.

Click here to read the brief filed by Sheena Eastburn's attorney with the Missouri Supreme Court.

 

SETTING A PRECEDENT

The Sheena Eastburn case could set a precedent for re-sentencing the 84 men and women currently serving sentences of 'life without parole' in Missouri prisons, for crimes committed before the age of 18.

Among them is Ronald Clements, who was 17 years old when he participated in the 1987 murder of Steven Newberry in Carl Junction.

Dowe Quick interviewed Clements for a two-part report that aired on KOAM-TV in 2008.

Click here to see that report.

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