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S.D. Supreme Court upholds conviction in torture-murder death row case
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S.D. Supreme Court upholds conviction in torture-murder death row case

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The South Dakota Supreme Court has unanimously upheld the conviction and sentence of the state's sole death row inmate, an Alaska man who helped torture a 19-year-old to death near Spearfish in 2000. 

The justices wrote in their Dec. 11 ruling that they recognize the importance of scrutinizing death penalty cases, but the need for a final decision is also important, especially in cases like this one that involve "untimely arguments" that don't contest the defendant's guilt. 

Briley Piper, a 39-year-old from Anchorage, was sentenced to death by a judge after unexpectedly admitting in 2001 without a plea deal that he murdered Chester Allan Poage, a 19-year-old from Spearfish, in nearby Higgins Gulch, the ruling says.

Piper was later re-sentenced to death by a jury after the South Dakota Supreme Court found that the judge incorrectly told Piper that in a jury sentencing, jurors must unanimously agree on any sentence, the ruling says. In reality, he would have been spared the death penalty and instead sentenced to life in prison without the chance of parole if even one juror voted against the death penalty. 

After a night of using methamphetamine and LSD, Piper, Elijah Page and Darrell Hoadley decided to burglarize Poage's home so they enticed the victim to Page's home in Spearfish on March 12, 2000, according to Journal archives. There, the trio pointed a gun at Poage, forced him to the floor, knocked him unconscious by kicking him in the head and tied his hands behind his back. When Poage woke up they forced him to drink a mixture of crushed pills, beer and hydrochloric acid, according to a 2006 state Supreme Court ruling

The group then drove Poage to Higgins Gulch where they stripped him of his clothes in the freezing weather and buried him in snow, archives say. Poage was able to run away, but the trio pushed him into the creek where they kicked him and took turns stabbing him in the neck and head. Poage was still alive and begged the group to bring him home to die. Instead, they stoned him to death. 

Page, a 25-year-old from Athens, Texas, was executed in 2007 after he pleaded guilty, a judge sentenced him to death, and he decided not to file any appeals. Hoadley, of Lead, was found guilty after a trial and sentenced to life in prison without parole due to a split jury decision.  

In his latest appeal, Piper argued that he had insufficient counsel at his change-of-plea hearing and that his guilty pleas were not made voluntarily and intelligently. He also argued that the re-sentencing court should have let him introduce evidence that the prosecutor previously made inconsistent arguments about the roles he and Page played in the murder. 

But the court found that Piper had "experienced criminal defense attorneys" who gave him reasonable advice. They said he decided to plead guilty after his lawyers told him a jury would likely convict him due to the overwhelming evidence of guilt, because he wanted to take responsibility, and thought doing so could serve as mitigating factor during sentencing. Finally, the justices said the prosecutor's arguments were accurate since Piper and Page took turns in a leadership role, and they didn't prevent Piper's lawyers from making their own arguments about his culpability. 

Piper's defense lawyer and a spokesman for the Attorney General's Office did not return messages asking if Piper plans to file more appeals or lawsuits and if the state plans to request an execution warrant. South Dakota's most recent execution was in November when Charles Rhines died by lethal injection after murdering 22-year-old Donnivan Schaeffer in a Rapid City doughnut shop in 1992.

— Contact Arielle Zionts at arielle.zionts@rapidcityjournal.com

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