Mechele Linehan, convicted of murder but now awaiting a new trial after a higher court recently threw out a 2007 verdict, may go free on bail until her second appearance before a jury, a state Superior Court judge decided Wednesday.
Judge Philip Volland said Linehan, 37, can be released to the custody of third parties, including her husband and a woman who befriended her after she was convicted and sent to prison for the 1996 murder of Kent Leppink.
Volland set bail for Linehan at $250,000. She can meet that by coming up with $25,000 cash to pay a bail bondsman. That money may be hard to raise given that her husband, Colin Linehan, recently declared bankruptcy.
Linehan had appeared in court a day earlier saying she was broke and asking for a public defender.
If released, Linehan must stay in the Anchorage area, the judge said. He likened the arrangement to a house arrest where she will only be allowed to go outside her home for two four-hour periods a week.
If the Linehans can raise the money, she could be released from prison within a couple of days.
The former Olympia, Wash., mother has been an inmate at Hiland Mountain, the state's women's prison in Eagle River, since her 2007 conviction. Prosecutors say she manipulated former fiance John Carlin III to shoot Leppink so she could get Leppink's $1 million life insurance policy payout. His body was found near Hope in May 1996. He had been shot multiple times.
Carlin was also convicted in a separate trial. He was killed in prison in 2008.
The Alaska Court of Appeals in February threw out the jury's guilty verdict for Linehan, ruling that Volland made errors in conducting the trial.
Volland said Wednesday that because of that ruling, the passage of time and the death of Carlin, the prosecutor's case might be considerably weaker, giving Linehan a reason to stay for the new trial and reducing the likelihood of her fleeing.
Linehan's second trial on the first-degree murder charge is not yet scheduled. Volland told one of the third-party custodians that it could be a year away, depending on the strategy of Linehan's lawyers.
That third-party custodian, Barbara Sheridan, only met Linehan after her conviction. She said she believes Linehan is innocent. When defense attorney Kevin Fitzgerald asked her why she was agreeing to be a third party, she said, "Out of ethics. I followed the case very carefully. I've read the court transcripts. I felt that we had done her a disservice and that no one else was stepping forward so I'm doing it."
Before Volland made his decision, prosecutor Pat Gullufsen asked the judge for a significantly higher bail, saying that after Linehan has experienced prison for two-and-a-half years she has the added incentive to avoid going back.
The victim's father, Kenneth Leppink, speaking at the hearing by phone, appealed to Volland to take seriously the likelihood Linehan could flee. "This is first-degree murder and it's not shoplifting. It should be handled like first-degree murder."
But Volland agreed to most of the terms put forward by Fitzgerald, saying that she was out on bail for more than a year before her first trial and is now highly recognizable because of the publicity around her case. The likelihood of her being able to bolt was slight. He also reminded those in the courtroom that the Court of Appeals decision brings Linehan back to being presumed innocent until proven guilty.
In his remarks on the strange twist of events that may lead to a replay of the sensational trial in his courtroom again, Volland spoke to the weaknesses in the state's case now. He wondered if John Carlin IV, the son of Carlin, would be cooperative in testifying again in light of his father's prison murder. At both his father and Linehan's trial, the younger Carlin testified that he saw his father washing a handgun in the days after Leppink was killed. "I understand that he's brought a civil action against the state. I just don't know if he's the same cooperative witness as he was before," Volland said.
Because the older Carlin died before the Appeals Court could hear his appeal for a new trial, the higher court has also thrown out his conviction, leaving prosecutors for this next trial against Linehan in murky legal territory. Volland said he believed prosecutors would have to take a different approach in their theory of the murder, one that absolves Carlin of the crime.
"Ms. Linehan has a lot of incentive to stick around and try this case again and see if she can get a different outcome," Volland said.