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Ralph Earnest

Other New Mexico Exonerations
In the early morning hours of February 12, 1982, the body of 31-year-old David Eastman was found lying in a ditch along Loving Highway, east of Carlsbad, New Mexico. His throat had been cut and he was shot twice in the head.

The following day, Eastman’s roommate called police when he saw three men riding in Eastman’s El Camino. The roommate said that Eastman had given his vehicle to the three as collateral for 14 grams of methamphetamine.

Police located and stopped the vehicle. After recovering methamphetamine in the car, police arrested the occupants: 34-year-old Ralph Earnest, 25-year-old Perry Conner, and 24-year-old Phillip Boeglin.

All three denied involvement in the crime. However, Boeglin, after calling an attorney’s office and being told it would cost $10,000 “up front” for representation, said he wanted to see if he could strike “some sort of deal.” He then gave a statement, which was audio recorded, saying that Eastman was killed because they suspected he was a police informant. In the statement, Boeglin said he tried to cut Eastman’s throat, but the knife was too dull to inflict a fatal wound, so Conner and Earnest each shot Eastman in the head. Boeglin led police to a remote area where they recovered the gun used in the shooting, a knife, and Eastman’s watch.

Boeglin, Earnest, and Conner were each charged with first-degree murder, conspiracy to commit first-degree murder, kidnapping, and possession and distribution of methamphetamine.

Conner pled guilty and was sentenced to life in prison. In January 1983, Earnest went to trial in Eddy County District Court. A mistrial was declared when the prosecution sought to call Boeglin as a witness and he refused to testify.

In September 1983, Earnest went to trial a second time. Again Boeglin refused to testify. The prosecution granted him immunity, but he still refused to testify. Asked 26 questions by the prosecutor, Boeglin declined to answer. The trial judge held Boeglin in contempt and later sentenced him to 26 one-year terms for each of the unanswered questions and ordered the sentences to be served consecutively.

The judge also granted a prosecution motion to present Boeglin’s statement to the jury. Earnest’s attorney, Gary Mitchell, objected, arguing that admitting the statement without an opportunity to cross-examine Boeglin violated Earnest’s Sixth Amendment right to confront his accuser. The objection was denied.

The prosecution then played Boeglin’s taped statement, and gave the jury typed transcripts of the recording to better follow the statement.

The defense called Conner, who testified that Earnest was not involved in the crime. The defense also presented evidence that a gunshot residue test performed on Earnest after his arrest was negative.

In September 1983, the jury convicted Earnest of first-degree murder, conspiracy to commit first-degree murder, kidnapping, and possession of methamphetamine. He was sentenced to life in prison.

Boeglin went to trial in December 1984 and was convicted of first-degree murder and kidnapping. He was sentenced to life in prison without parole.

Earnest appealed his convictions and in March 1985, the New Mexico Supreme Court ordered a new trial. The court held that the admission of Boeglin's statement “was highly prejudicial, violated (Earnest’s) confrontation rights, and deprived (him) of meaningful cross-examination.”

The prosecution appealed that ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1986, the Court ruled that the prosecution was entitled to a hearing to show that Boeglin’s statement was sufficiently reliable to satisfy concerns about the inability to cross-examine him.

The case was remanded to the Eddy County District Court. Following a hearing, the trial judge concluded that Boeglin’s statement was sufficiently reliable. As a result, the judge ruled that allowing Boeglin’s taped statement without cross-examination was permissible. Earnest’s convictions were reinstated.

Earnest filed a state law petition for a writ of habeas corpus, which was denied. He then filed a federal petition for a writ of habeas corpus. In 1996, that petition also was denied.

In 2004, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in an unrelated case (Crawford v. Washington) that “where testimonial evidence is at issue,” the Sixth Amendment requires the “opportunity for cross-examination.”

Earnest filed another state law petition for a writ of habeas corpus, noting that the legal basis cited by the U.S. Supreme Court was the same basis cited by the New Mexico Supreme Court back in 1985.

In 2005, the New Mexico Supreme Court agreed with Earnest. The court vacated his convictions and ordered a new trial. The prosecution sought to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, but its petition for review was denied.

In 2006, as the case was gearing up for a retrial, Earnest’s lawyer, Gary Mitchell, visited Boeglin in prison to interview him.

During the interview, Boeglin recanted his statement implicating Earnest and said that Earnest was not involved in the murder.

Although the prosecution was informed of Boeglin’s statement to Mitchell, the case proceeded to trial. On September 5, 2006, with prospective jurors in the courtroom, District Judge Jay Forbes was informed of Boeglin’s statement to Mitchell. Forbes then ordered Boeglin brought into the judge’s chambers, where he was placed under oath. Boeglin said that Earnest was not involved in the crime, but that he would again refuse to testify.

Immediately thereafter, the prosecution offered Earnest a deal in which he pled guilty to possession of methamphetamine, in exchange for which the murder, conspiracy, and kidnapping charges were dismissed.

Earnest pled guilty, was sentenced to three years in prison, which he had already served, and was then released.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 10/4/2018
State:New Mexico
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:Kidnapping, Drug Possession or Sale, Conspiracy
Reported Crime Date:1982
Age at the date of reported crime:34
Contributing Factors:Perjury or False Accusation
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No