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Oakley Engesser

Other South Dakota Exonerations
On July 30, 2000, 41-year-old Oakley Engesser and his 59-year-old friend, Dorothy Finley, were drinking together at the Full Throttle Saloon in Sturgis, South Dakota, a few days before the annual motorcycle rally there. Finley’s red Corvette was in the parking lot.

No one could recall seeing the couple leave, but an employee of the bar estimated that they departed after 6 p.m. At about 7:30 p.m., a man driving on Interstate 90 outside of Sturgis saw a red Corvette pass him at high speed. He did not see the occupants of the car, but as it went around a curve, he saw a cloud of dust and the Corvette struck the rear of a minivan and then spun out of control. The Corvette rolled over several times and came to rest upside down.

Engesser was thrown from the car into a ditch where a nurse who happened upon the scene was able to get him to start breathing again. The Corvette was upside down on the roadway. Finley was found on the passenger side of the vehicle, face down and lifeless. Two passengers in the van were injured but survived. The driver’s side door of the car was open when police arrived.

Two people who were on the side of the road tending to a broken down vehicle—Eric Eckholm and Charlotte Fowler—told state police that they saw the accident and that the driver was a woman. Their statements were not included in the police reports, though their names were listed as witnesses who were interviewed at the scene.

Engesser survived, but he suffered a serious brain injury that wiped out his memory of the accident. A state trooper interviewed Engesser at the hospital. Engesser, who was barely coherent, said while he could not recall the accident, he didn’t believe he was driving. The trooper concluded that Engesser was lying and must have been the driver, primarily because Engesser was ejected from the car, the driver’s side door was open and Finley was found on the passenger side.

In February 2001, Engesser was charged with vehicular homicide for the death of Finley and two counts of vehicular battery for the injuries to the man and his wife who were in the van struck by the Corvette.

Engesser went to trial in Meade County Circuit Court in August 2001. The prosecution presented no witnesses who said they saw Engesser behind the wheel of the car. Medical testimony showed that Engesser and Finley were both legally drunk. The state trooper testified that he believed Engesser was the driver based the location of Finley’s body, the open driver’s side door and the fact that Engesser was ejected, and because he believed that Engesser was lying about being unable to remember the crash. Another trooper estimated that the Corvette was traveling in excess of 110 miles an hour. Neither Engesser nor Finley were wearing seatbelts.

Although Engesser’s attorney was given the police reports that included the names of Eckholm and Fowler, he never contacted them and failed to call them as witnesses at the trial.

On August 30, 2001, the jury convicted Engesser of all the charges. He was sentenced to 25 years in prison.

In 2007, Engesser filed a state petition for a writ of habeas corpus claiming that he had received a constitutionally unfair trial because his defense lawyer had failed to interview Eckholm and Fowler. At an evidentiary hearing, Eckholm and Fowler testified for the first time that a woman was driving and said the accident happened so close to where they were standing on the shoulder that they thought they were going to be struck by the Corvette.

At the conclusion of the hearing, the judge granted the petition, vacated Engesser’s convictions and ordered a new trial. However, the state appealed and in December 2008, the South Dakota Supreme Court reversed the ruling and reinstated the convictions. The court held that the petition was procedurally barred and should have been denied without a hearing.

Engesser filed a federal petition for a writ of habeas corpus and at a hearing on that petition Eckholm and Fowler again testified that Finley was driving the Corvette.

In addition, another witness testified for the first time at the federal hearing—Greg Smeenk, who said that he and his two young daughters came upon the accident almost immediately after it happened. He said he ran to the Corvette and pulled open the driver’s side door, which was closed, and reached across to the passenger side to take Finley’s pulse. He said he realized that she was dead and left the scene before police arrived because someone else was already tending to Engesser and he wanted to get his daughters away from the gruesome scene. Smeenk reached out to Engesser’s lawyer after reading about Engesser’s attempts to overturn his convictions.

The defense also located two more witnesses who said Finley was behind the wheel. A security guard at the Full Throttle Saloon where Engesser and Finley had been drinking on the day of the crash testified that he saw the couple leave the bar and that Finley got behind the wheel and they drove out of the parking lot. The owner of a local car dealership testified that he and his family were on the interstate when the Corvette entered the highway and that he moved his car over to allow the Corvette to merge onto the roadway. He testified that a woman was driving the car. He also was shown a photograph of Engesser and said Engesser was not behind the wheel.

In September 2011, U.S. District Court Judge Karen Schreier granted the petition and ordered a new trial for Engesser. The prosecution again appealed and in July 2012, the Eighth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals reversed and reinstated Engesser’s convictions. The court held that Engesser was procedurally barred from presenting the evidence and the hearing should not have been held.

In April 2013, after a news account of the case was published, two more witnesses came forward to say they saw Finley driving the Corvette just before the crash. Another state petition for a writ of habeas corpus was filed and following a hearing, Engesser was granted a new trial in October 2013. He was released on bond pending a new trial.

On January 7, 2015, the prosecution dismissed the case. In June 2015, Engesser filed a $20 million lawsuit against the state police accusing them of withholding the witness statements that the driver was a woman. The lawsuit was dismissed, but Engesser appealed in 2019 to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit. The appellate court affirmed the dismissal on April 7, 2021.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 1/13/2015
Last Updated: 8/23/2021
State:South Dakota
Most Serious Crime:Manslaughter
Additional Convictions:Other Violent Felony
Reported Crime Date:2000
Sentence:25 years
Age at the date of reported crime:41
Contributing Factors:Official Misconduct, Inadequate Legal Defense
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No