Life sentence upheld for man who killed girlfriend in 1971

DANIEL WHEELER

CORUNNA — An area man convicted of killing his teen girlfriend in 1971, when he also was a teen, won’t get a chance at freedom.

Daniel Wheeler, 68, will spend the rest of his life in prison, 35th Circuit Court Judge Matthew Stewart ruled Tuesday, upholding the original sentence of life without parole for the murder of Wheeler’s pregnant, 16-year-old girlfriend Erlinda Paz in Hazelton Township in 1971.

Wheeler, who was 17 at the time of Paz’s murder, saw his sentence reviewed because of a 2016 U.S. Supreme Court decision (Miller v. Alabama) that found juveniles sentenced to life in prison were subjected to cruel and unusual punishment.

The court ruled those sentences must be re-examined. Wheeler’s case was one of four such reviews conducted in Shiawassee County.

“Defendant’s crime demonstrates planning and foresight, rather than impulsivity and recklessness,” Stewart wrote in Tuesday’s ruling. “As a juvenile, defendant was certainly impetuous and immature.”

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 was last in circuit court in December 2019 for the evidentiary hearing on whether he should be re-sentenced, and that had been delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Becky Hahn, Wheeler’s attorney, stated in December 2019 that her client had a rough home life, and dropped out of school in ninth grade. She pointed out Wheeler’s good behavior since he began serving his sentence in 1971. Wheeler finished his GED and acted as a handyman at the prison where he is serving his sentence.

She also noted an affidavit written in the 1970s by Raymond Basso, who was an assistant prosecutor for Shiawassee County. Basso said the case was “one of two trials that haunted him,” and had doubts about the legitimacy of Wheeler’s conviction.

Basso later became a district court judge and passed away in 1980.

Former prosecutor Deana Finnegan sought to uphold the original life sentence Wheeler received, and filed motions in July 2019 to that effect.

“Sentencing decisions are never that simple,” Stewart wrote in his ruling. “However, it is appropriate that the decision to impose the ultimate criminal penalty should not come lightly.”

Other juvenile lifers

Ronald Hammond

At a resentencing hearing Jan. 25, Stewart told murder victim Sean Kiley’s family members his hands were tied in regard to sentencing, due to a sentencing agreement the Kent County Prosecutor’s Office — which handled the resentencing due to a conflict of interest with the Shiawassee County Prosecutor’s Office — had entered into with Hammond’s attorneys.

Stewart resentenced Hammond to a minimum of 40 years in prison, with credit for 331/2 years served — meaning Hammond will be eligible for parole in about 6 years.

John Espie

Espie, now 38, was 16 when he overpowered and killed Nathan Nover, 71, and dumped his body near the Michigan-Indiana border.

Nover, who was working for Shiawassee County, had been transporting Espie from a psychiatric evaluation in Lansing to a juvenile detention center in Bay City.

After the murder, Espie used Nover’s credit card to buy clothes and other items before the card was tracked to a hotel in Indianapolis, where Espie was arrested.

Court records indicate the next nearing in the resentencing case is slated for 8:30 a.m. Dec. 11.

Mark Dawson

Dawson, 61, was convicted at 17 of first-degree murder for killing a gas station attendant during a robbery in Caledonia Township in 1976. He was sentenced to life in prison without parole.

However, due to the Supreme Court ruling, Dawson was resentenced in June 2017 by Stewart to 40 to 60 years.

Dawson had served 40 years of his sentence by that point, meaning he was already eligible for parole, which eventually was granted.

Online records for the Michigan Department of Corrections indicate Dawson was released from prison June 6, 2018.

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