The Alaska Court of Appeals on Friday overturned the murder conviction of Mechele Linehan, leaving it to state prosecutors to decide whether to retry the former Anchorage stripper.
The appeals court opinion concluded Superior Court Judge Philip Volland, who presided at Linehan's 2007 trial, never should have allowed the jury to hear testimony about the movie "The Last Seduction." The court also said a letter written by victim Kent Leppink in the days before he died should not have been allowed in.
The letter, which Leppink wrote to his parents, said Linehan was a likely culprit if he ended up dead.
"The State's case against Linehan was circumstantial, and the evidence was subject to different interpretations and was hardly overwhelming," wrote Appeals Chief Judge Robert Coats. "We accordingly conclude that Linehan's conviction must be reversed."
Leppink, a 36-year-old commercial fisherman from a well-to-do family, was found shot to death in Hope in 1996. Linehan and John Carlin III, the alleged triggerman, were arrested on murder charges in 2006. Both were convicted in separate trials in Anchorage, and Volland sentenced both to 99 years in prison.
Defense attorneys argued the trial was a witch hunt where Linehan's character was judged, not her guilt or innocence. Linehan, now 37, admitted that she was reckless with people and manipulative in her relationships with men when she was in her early 20s but said that did not make her a killer.
At Linehan's trial, prosecutor Pat Gullufsen claimed Linehan tried to emulate the lead character of "The Last Seduction" in plotting to kill Leppink. The appeals judges said the evidence never should have been allowed for several reasons, including that the circumstances of Leppink's death were not similar to the 1994 noire thriller.
"Many law-abiding people are drawn to characters in literature or in the cinema who are villainous or roguish -- even though they would not dream of engaging in the same crimes or misdeeds," Judge David Mannheimer wrote in the 3-0 decision.
Leppink letter sealed decision
It was the accusatory letter from Leppink to his parents that was the most damaging, the judges said. The judges would have overturned Linehan's conviction on the basis of the letter alone, Mannheimer wrote.
Linehan's appeal lawyers, Jeff Feldman, Susan Orlansky and former Alaska Supreme Court Justice Alex Bryner, also tried to convince the appeals court that allowing evidence about Linehan's job as a Bush Company stripper unfairly biased the jury. The court rejected that claim, saying they read the entire trial transcript and Gullufsen did not use Linehan's one-time job against her; rather he used it to explain how she met Leppink and Carlin.
The district attorney can choose to take the case to the Alaska Supreme Court, re-try it or set free Linehan, who has spent the years since her conviction at Hiland Mountain Correctional Center in Eagle River.
Deputy Attorney General Rick Svobodny said Friday morning he had not yet read the 55-page opinion and would decide on a course of action later.
Linehan's alleged co-conspirator, Carlin, was killed at the Spring Creek Correctional Center in a seemingly unrelated slaying, but no one has been charged with his death. He also said he was innocent and was appealing his decision. Because he died before he could complete his appeal, the appellate court, on that technicality, set aside his conviction in late 2008, according to a footnote in the appeal decision.
Prosecutors say the motive in the slaying was Leppink's $1 million life insurance policy payout. Linehan never got the money, though, because Leppink changed the policy's beneficiary in the days before his death, prosecutors said.
Linehan, who has always insisted she was innocent, admitted to being manipulative in her relationship with Leppink but said she had nothing to do with his death. She said she tried to cancel the life insurance policy.
Linehan, Carlin and Leppink were friends involved in a complicated love triangle while they lived in Carlin's South Anchorage house when Leppink was killed.
Carlin had already been convicted by the time Linehan went to trial. Her defense strategy at the trial was that Carlin acted on his own. She has said, though, that she doesn't know who killed Leppink.
At the trial, prosecutors built their case on testimony and evidence that Linehan toyed with Leppink's emotions, may have had more than one boyfriend at a time, and shared life insurance policies with Leppink. They also say she acted guilty afterward by helping Carlin wash a gun -- whether that happened is disputed.
Linehan was, at one time, a beneficiary on Leppink's life insurance policy. He was also the beneficiary on hers, although the insurance agency would not insure her for $1 million as she and Leppink had wanted. The company insured her life for only $150,000. It was disputed at trial as to whether she thought that beneficiary status was active or not at the time of Leppink's death.
In Leppink's letter written before he was killed, he told his parents that Linehan had a "split personality" and that "the part [he] fell in love with is very beautiful." But Leppink also told his parents "to take Mechele down" and to "make sure she is prosecuted." He told them to make sure she gets "burned."
Volland allowed the jury to consider the letter because it demonstrated how obsessed Leppink was with Linehan and it showed how easily manipulated he was because of that infatuation, he said at the trial. But Linehan's lawyers never disputed that Leppink was crazy about their client. The victim's state of mind was not at issue, the appeals court judges concluded. There was already plenty of evidence that Leppink acted like he was obsessed. They noted he knew about Linehan's other relationships with men and still pursued her, followed her and a boyfriend to Louisiana and served them coffee in bed, and collected information about the boyfriend.
While Volland concluded that Leppink's statement that Linehan had a split personality was a kind of comment that people in relationships often make about each other and that it didn't reflect badly on Linehan, the appeals judges said that's not true.
Conviction a big win for state
The problem with allowing a murdered victim's "testimony" in a trial through such a letter is that it is emotional testimony for jurors to hear and it doesn't allow the defense to question "the witness" about what is being said. "It is almost inevitable that the jurors would view Leppink's assertions as at least circumstantial proof of the matters asserted," the appeals court wrote. "In other words, the jurors would suspect that Leppink probably knew what he was talking about."
The court said this type of unfair prejudice is most damaging in a case based entirely on circumstantial evidence, like Linehan's.
"The State's ability to secure a guilty verdict hinged on convincing the jury to view a large number of ambiguous facts in the light most favorable to Linehan's guilt. In this situation, the evidence of Leppink's posthumous accusations may well have been the weight that tipped the jury's decision," Manheimmer wrote.
The appeals court said the evidence about the "letter from the grave" and the movie had no direct relevance "to the events being litigated, but ... strongly suggested that Linehan was the kind of person who would conspire to have Leppink murdered," Mannheimer wrote. The judges said that tainted the jury.
The Linehan conviction was a significant win for the then-recently formed Cold Case unit of the Alaska State Troopers. Leppink's murder was one of the first cases for which it made arrests. The Linehan case garnered national attention because prosecutors painted her as a manipulative, seductive, money-hungry stripper. But her friends and family say she is nothing like that and only worked as a dancer for a little while in her early 20s to earn money for college. She went on to marry a doctor, have a family and earn a master's degree in public administration. She has no other criminal convictions.
Linehan will remain in state custody until the case is sent back to the Superior Court for processing. The state will have to say whether they intend to hold another trial or petition the Supreme Court, which can choose not to hear the case.
The Leppink family could not be immediately reached for comment.
"Mechele was both pleased and full of appropriate questions about what happens next," Orlansky said of her client's reaction to the news when she received it in prison Friday morning.
Linehan's husband, Colin Linehan, reached Friday morning, said he was just trying to take in the information and enjoy the day. There is still a long road ahead for him and his family, he said.