Eliason denied new trialPublished 1:27pm Tuesday, May 1, 2012
Berrien County Trial Judge Scott Schofield Tuesday denied Dakotah Eliason’s motion seeking a new trial in a 20-page decision.
Eliason, then 14, was convicted on Aug. 19, 2010, of the first-degree murder of his sleeping step-grandfather, Jesse Miles, on March 7, 2010, by shooting him in the head with a loaded revolver kept by the back door for protection against intruders.
After being sentenced to a mandatory sentence of life without parole, Eliason filed an appeal and motion to remand.
The Michigan Court of Appeals on Oct. 25, 2011, remanded the case to the trial judge for an evidentiary hearing on Eliason’s claim his attorney, Lanny Fisher, ineffectively represented him by failing to call an expert witness to explain his apparent lack of remorse, to object to admission of post-murder statements indicating an obsession with death and to object to the prosecutor’s reference to convicted California serial killer Charles Manson, who Eliason’s father testified was mentioned in a criminology text Eliason looked through.
Schofield heard testimony from Fisher and from psychologist Dr. James Henry.
After considering the parties’ arguments, the judge concluded Fisher’s failure to call an expert witness to explain Eliason’s post-incident conduct did not render his performance constitutionally deficient.
According to the judge, in view of Fisher’s decision not to pursue another expert after his client’s evaluation by three different mental health professionals, “It is almost absurd to argue that Fisher failed to zealously investigate his client’s mental health status and search for mental-health reasons why defendant should not be convicted of premeditated murder.”
Schofield also found Fisher’s strategy in countering the prosecutor’s evidence and argument that Eliason lacked remorse to be well-considered and reasonable.
“The prosecutor had plenty of other evidence to show that defendant’s pull of the trigger was the product of substantial reflection,” Schofield wrote. “Fisher knew he needed to focus on other ways to combat the no-remorse argument. He reasonably decided to discontinue his quixotic quest for a mental-health explanation” and “to chip away” by reminding jurors “that his client was just a kid, that 14-year-olds do not think like adults, that there was no evidence of motive, that there was no explanation for the killing, that not everyone reacts to tragedy immediately and openly, and that Dakotah had recently experienced a string of tragedies. This was a reasonable strategy.”
The judge also found no reasonable probability Eliason, now 16, would have been acquitted of first-degree murder even if the jury heard an expert try to explain his post-murder conduct.
Schofield also found overwhelming evidence of premeditation and deliberation, and that Henry’s testimony was unpersuasive.
“It is hard to imagine a stronger or clearer case for premeditated murder,” Schofield wrote, adding, “The no-remorse-means-murder-one argument was the smallest arrow in the prosecutor’s premeditation quiver.”
Schofield concluded that Fisher’s failure to object to evidence of Eliason’s obsession with death was not ineffective, and his failure to object to the prosecutor’s reference to Manson was not objectively unreasonable.
Eliason’s case will be returned to the Michigan Court of Appeals for review of Schofield’s decision, as well as other issues raised on appeal, according to the Berrien County Prosecutor’s Office.