CORUNNA — Daniel Wheeler, who was convicted of killing his girlfriend Erlinda Paz in Hazelton Township in March 1971, appeared in 35th Circuit Court Tuesday for the first day of a hearing that could see him sent back to prison or, possibly, freed.
In 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled juveniles who were sentenced to life in prison were subjected to “cruel and unusual punishment,” and should be re-sentenced. Wheeler’s case was among those eligible for re-hearing.
At Tuesday’s hearing, Wheeler’s attorney Becky Hahn noted the inmate had a rough upbringing and dropped out of school in the ninth grade.
“He has ‘hazy’ memories of the trial,” Hahn argued, adding Wheeler was abusing inhalants at the time of the murder. “He doesn’t recall the murder at all. He doesn’t remember much of 1969-70 at all.”
She reviewed Wheeler’s behavior since being sentenced, and noted he had obtained his GED, attended job training and acted as a “handyman” at the prison. One Michigan Department of Corrections memo from 1989, introduced Tuesday, described Wheeler as a “model” inmate.
Hahn also noted then-assistant prosecutor for Shiawassee County Raymond Basso said in an affidavit that the case was “one of two trials that haunted him,” and expressed some doubt about Wheeler’s conviction. Basso died in 1980 after becoming a district court judge.
Thirty-fifth Circuit Court Judge Matthew Stewart will continue to hear arguments Thursday, with more testimony from psychiatrists and mental health experts also scheduled to run into next week.
During Wheeler’s 1971 trial, evidence was presented that Paz had written a letter to Wheeler informing him he was the father of her child. Several witnesses testified Wheeler was upset. One witness said Wheeler had taken him to the location where Paz’s body was eventually found.
An autopsy revealed Paz had suffered lacerations to the scalp and forehead consistent with injuries caused by a gun barrel. A shotgun barrel was found near where Paz’s body was discovered in a wooded area in Hazelton Township 14 days after she was killed. Tests showed she was 21/2 months pregnant when she was murdered.
Wheeler was found guilty of first-degree, premeditated murder by a jury and sentenced to life without parole April 19, 1971. He is serving his sentence at the Macomb Correctional Facility in Lenox Township near Detroit.
Wheeler is one of four juvenile lifers from Shiawassee County whose sentences either have been or are slated to be reexamined. The others are Ronald Hammond, John Espie and Mark Dawson. Dawson was sentenced in June 1977. Hammond was convicted in June 1986. Espie was sentenced in 1999. Espie’s case is being handled by the Michigan Attorney General’s office because the case spanned multiple jurisdictions.
Shiawassee County Prosecutor Deana Finnegan said previously that individuals sentenced to life as juveniles would get minimum sentences of 25 to 40 years, and a maximum sentence of 60 years, unless prosecutors motion to uphold the life sentences.
In the cases of Wheeler, the Shiawassee County Prosecutor’s Office will seek to uphold the current life terms. In July, Finnegan said, motions were filed to continue the sentence.