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Misconduct results in reversal in 34-year-old case

Seal of the Idaho judicial branch
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Misconduct results in reversal in 34-year-old case

The Idaho Supreme Court ruled this past Monday that Idaho County prosecutors committed misconduct during Mark Lankford’s 2008 murder retrial. As a result, Lankford will need to be released from prison or retried for a 1983 double-murder. The court originally overturned Lankford’s convictions last summer but prosecutors petitioned for a rehearing. The court’s 39-page opinion (again) found that prosecutors unconstitutionally withheld critical information from Lankford concerning a key witness.

Over 34 years ago, U.S. Marine Capt. Robert Bravence and his wife, Cheryl Brevance, were murdered at a campsite in the Sheep Creek area of Idaho County. Their bodies were discovered three months later. Mark Lankford, a former oil company accountant from Houston, and his younger brother, Bryan Lankford, were later apprehended in Texas and charged with the murders. Each brother has blamed the other for the crimes.

The brothers were tried and both sentenced to death in 1984. Bryan Lankford was later resentenced to life and is now up for parole in 2018. Mark Lankford was granted a new trial in 2009 after the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit found that his original trial counsel was ineffective. He was retried in 2008, convicted again, and given two consecutive life sentences.

According to the court, prosecution witness Lane Thomas’ “credibility as a witness was essential to Lankford’s conviction.” Which is why the trial prosecutor’s failure to disclose that he had told Thomas ahead of trial “that he would try to get him out of prison and placed on probation” was so critical.

As the court had previously explained, and repeated in its ruling on Monday, “[Prosecutors] should not exert their skill and ingenuity to see how far they can trespass upon the verge of error, because generally in so doing they transgress upon the rights of the accused.” The court’s ruling examined multiple instances of the prosecutor “transgress[ing] upon” Lankford’s rights, although it ultimately granted relief on the singular issue of his promise to help Thomas get out of prison and secure probation. For example, the State had “failed to mention” that the trial prosecutor had arranged for Bryan Lankford (who testified against his brother during the retrial) to have a cell phone while in prison to call his wife; helped facilitate communication between Bryan and his brother, Lee John; allegedly failed to disclose that $1,500 was given to Thomas, the key witness, after the trial; and failed to correct Thomas’ testimony when Thomas stated that he was only testifying for a letter of cooperation and for “just being honest.”

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