NILES -- Convicted teen murderer Dakotah Eliason's attempt to get a new trial based on ineffective counsel claims has hit a roadblock with a decision by Berrien County Trial Judge Scott Schofield to deny Eliason's motion for a new trial.
Schofield issued his 20-page opinion Monday and it was made public today. The matter now goes back to the Michigan Court of Appeals which had sent the ineffective counsel issue back to Schofield's court for an evidentiary hearing.
The evidentiary hearing was held over two days, one in mid-December and one in early February. Testimony in that hearing came first from Eliason's original attorney, Lanny Fisher, of Buchanan, and then from expert witness Dr. James Henry.
Henry said Eliason suffered from dissociative and post traumatic stress disorders that left him unable to either stop himself from killing his step-grandfather or show much remorse or emotion in the hours afterward.
Eliason, now 16, was convicted as an adult of first-degree murder after an August, 2010 trial and is now serving a sentence of life in prison without parole. He shot and killed his step-grandfather, Jesse Miles, in March, 2010 at his grandparents' Niles-Buchanan Road home, described Thursday as his place of refuge from his emotionally distant father.
The teen was visiting his paternal grandmother and step grandfather on the weekend of March 7, 2010. Testimony during the trial indicated that Eliason thought about "suicide or homicide" by either gun or knife as he sat next to his sleeping grandfather for hours before shooting him.
In his opinion, Schofield ruled that Eliason and his appellate attorney, Jonathan Sacks, did not prove that Fisher offered ineffective counsel in defending Eliason from the first-degree murder charge. Schofield said Fisher's failure to call an expert witness to testify during the trial did not constitute ineffective assistance.
Schofield noted that Fisher had access to three mental health expert opinions that were unfavorable to his client and had no reason to think that contacting a fourth expert would have a different outcome. He likened questioning Fisher's decision to not call an expert to specifically address Eliason's apparent lack of remorse to Monday morning quarterbacking.
"It is almost absurd to argue that Fisher failed to zealously investigate his client's mental health status and search for mental-health reasons why defendant should not be convicted of premeditated murder," the judge wrote.
Schofield said Fisher could not spend his whole time preparing for trial on a search for mental health factors and had to find other ways to counter the prosecution's premeditation evidence such as reminding the jury that Eliason "was just a kid, that 14-year-olds do not think like adults, that there was no evidence of motive, that there was no explanation for the killing."
The judge called Henry's expert testimony in the evidentiary hearing "unpersuasive." "The court had an opportunity to observe and listen to Henry while he was on the witness stand," he wrote. "His demeanor was unimpressive. His logic seemed strained. He acted more like a cheerleader for the defense than a disinterested professional."
Schofield also did not accept Sacks' claims that Fisher did not counter the prosecution's emphasis on Eliason's post-killing comments or his father's testimony about Eliason's interest in Charles Manson. The judge said Fisher's decision to not object to testimony about Eliason's interest in death and killing did not constitute ineffective counsel.
Assistant Berrien County Prosecutor Beth Wild said the Michigan Court of Ap-peals will now review Schofield's ruling on the ineffective counsel claims as well as rule on other separate issues Sacks has raised in his appeal to that court. Wild said she was not surprised by Schofield's ruling.