Donald Moeller was originally convicted in 1992 of the brutal 1990 rape and murder of nine-year-old Becky O'Connell, who was abducted in Sioux Falls and raped and murdered in Lincoln County. After this first conviction, which included a sentence of death, his conviction was reversed by the South Dakota Supreme Court in 1996, and Moeller was re-tried, re-convicted and re-sentenced to death in 1997 by a Pennington County jury. The South Dakoa Supreme Court affirmed that conviction.
Moeller is now challenging his conviction in State habeas corpus proceedings. The habeas corpus hearing was held on February 27 through March 1, 2002, in Sioux Falls. After the hearing, the parties briefed the matter, and the habeas trial court denied all relief, thus upholding Moeller's conviction. The habeas trial court also denied a certificate of probable cause on all except one issue, and Moeller requested a certificate of probable cause from the South Dakota Supreme Court. The South Dakota Supreme Court affirmed this denial of Habeas corpus relief on March 22, 2004.
Thereafter, Moeller filed a petition for habeas corpus in the United States District Court for the District of South Dakota, Southern Division. There is a petition on file, and the State has responded. It is anticipated that the Court will hold either an oral argument or other hearing before making a ruling. There is no deadline for the Court to rule on this petition. After that Court rules, further appeals within the federal system can be pursued.
On March 13, 2000, Briley Piper and two other individuals kidnapped Chester Allan Poage and beat him to death. Afterwards, they returned to Poage's home and stole personal property and the victim's 1997 Blazer, which was used to leave the state. Prior to trial, Piper pleaded guilty to Felony Murder, Kidnapping, Robbery in the First Degree, Burglary in the First Degree, and Grand Theft. Piper further waived his right to a jury trial on sentencing and the sentencing hearing was held in front of the trial court. After this hearing, the trial court sentenced Piper to death. Update: The South Dakota Supreme Court overturned Piper's death sentence on 7/29/09. The court ruled that Piper's sentence should have been decided by a jury and not a judge alone. Piper was granted a new penalty phase proceeding, which was conducted in South Dakota Circuit Court in Rapid City. The case was moved from Lawrence County to Pennington County due to a change of venue motion. After two weeks of testimony, the jury in the Piper resentencing trial unanimously concluded that he should be executed for his role in the murder of Mr. Poage. Piper was formally sentenced to death by Circuit Judge Jerome Eckridge; and that sentence will be automatically appealed to the state supreme court as statutorily required in South Dakota. Then the legal game of chess continues. UPDATE: Briley Piper's execution has been scheduled to take place the week of March 18, 2012. However, that is seen as merely a technical date in order to keep his appeals flowing. Since the sentence that has been handed down by Judge Eckridge must be automatically appealed to and reviewed by the South Dakota Supreme Court, the March execution date most likely will not hold.
The two other individuals, Darrell Hoadley and Elijah Page were arrested in connection with the Poage murder. Page, along with Piper pleaded guilty and left their sentencing up to District Judge Warren Johnson in a bench penalty phase proceeding. Both waived their right to have a jury empaneled for the penalty phase proceeding. Johnson found Page and Piper death penalty eligible upon finding that statutory aggravating circumstances were present, and accordingly sentenced them to death.
Page would later drop all of his remaining appeals and request to be executed. Elijah Page became the first South Dakota inmate to be put to death by the state in 60 years when he was executed by lethal injection on the evening of July 12, 2007.
Hoadley, meanwhile, elected to go to trial and while the jury in that case found him guilty of first degree murder, Hoadley was spared a death sentence when the jury was declared hung when it could not reach a unanimous decision as to the sentence to be imposed. That left the judge in Hoadley's case no choice but to impose a life sentence without parole to Hoadley. He is serving his sentence in the South Dakota State Penitentiary in Sioux Falls.
Rhines was convicted of the 1992 torture murder of Donnivan Schaefer in the course of a Rapid City donut shop burglary. He was tried and convicted, and sentenced to death, before a Pennington County jury in 1993. The South Dakota Supreme Court affirmed the conviction in 1996. Rhines sought state post-conviction habeas corpus relief in late 1996.
Habeas corpus is a procedure where a defendant seeks to overturn his criminal conviction because of allegations that his constitutional rights have been violated at trial. The South Dakota Circuit Court denied habeas corpus to Rhines in 1998, and the South Dakota Supreme Court affirmed this denial on February 9, 2000. Thereafter, Rhines sought habeas corpus relief in the United States District Court. That court held that because certain issues were never raised before the State courts, Rhines could return to State court and raise certain issues there.
The State appealed the order allowing return to State court without dismissal of the federal petition to the Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit. The Eighth Circuit agreed with the State, and said Rhines will have to either pursue the issues he has already raised in the State courts, or dismiss the present habeas case in federal court and return to State court. If he dismisses the present federal habeas petition, he might not be permitted to return a second time to federal court. Rhines’ lawyers asked the United States Supreme Court to review his case, and their request was granted in June, 2004. The United States Supreme Court decided that the Court could stay the petition under the appropriate circumstances in a decision dated March 30, 2005.
When the matter came back before the United States District Court, that Court re-instituted its stay of the federal proceeding and allowed Rhines to pursue further relief before the state courts. At the present time, the matter is pending before the Circuit Court for the Seventh Judicial Circuit on Rhines’s second state habeas petition. That court has required the State to file a return, and the matter is pending before the court await the State’s return.