FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE : Monday, July 30, 2012
CONTACT: Sara Rabern, (605) 773-3215
8th Circuit Court of Appeals Reinstates Jury Conviction for Vehicular Homicide
PIERRE, S.D - Attorney General Marty Jackley announced that the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the Federal District Court decision overturning the jury conviction for Oakley Engesser’s vehicular homicide of Dorothy Finley.
“The Federal Appellate Court’s decision gives important recognition to the deference that is owed to jury verdicts and state court decisions,” said Jackley.
Engesser was charged with vehicular homicide and battery in 2001 as a result of a crash near the Tilford weigh station on I90 that killed Dorothy Finley on July 30, 2000. According to the Federal Appellate Court, Engesser left the Full Throttle Saloon in Sturgis, with Finley around 6:00 p.m. on July 30, 2000. They drove off in Finley’s red corvette, and around 8:10 p.m. their car collided with a minivan on I90. They had been traveling 112 miles per hour at the time, and their car rolled over several times before coming to rest upside down in the median. Finley was killed in the accident, and two of the minivan’s occupants were injured. Engesser was found on the ground unconscious, and Finley’s body was inside the car on the passenger side. According to one witness, Finley was lying face down against the roof of the car, in line with the passenger seat, with her feet underneath the dash board. At the time of the crash Engesser’s blood alcohol level was approximately .125.
Prior to trial Engesser was informed of two witnesses who were on the side of the interstate when the crash occurred. Both witnesses were questioned by law enforcement and neither could identify the driver. These witnesses were never called to testify at trial because they could not identify that driver. A Meade County jury convicted Engesser based on evidence that indicated he was the driver, which included, but was not limited to the following: the driver seat adjustment setting, which fit Engesser; the location of the victim’s purse under the passenger seat; the accident reconstruction, which included the victim pinned in the passenger seat; and the location of the victim’s injuries.
The South Dakota Supreme Court affirmed Engesser’s jury conviction, and Engesser subsequently filed a total of three state and two federal habeas petitions. The South Dakota Supreme Court repeatedly rejected his claims. After his first federal habeas petition was denied he filed a second federal habeas petition, claiming his trial counsel was ineffective for failing to call the previously disclosed witnesses. The Federal District Court found Essenger’s trial counsel was ineffective for not calling the witnesses. In making its decision, the Federal District Court relied on identification testimony the South Dakota Supreme Court had previously described as questionable.
The 8th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the District Court, holding the Engesser failed to meet the requirements that would entitle him to prevail on the second habeas petition.