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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.”

Follow up: Gaston County D.A. accused of withholding evidence in murder case

Follow up: Gaston County D.A. accused of withholding evidence in murder case

On Monday, July 3, 2017, a Superior Court judge granted Mark Carver’s request for an evidentiary hearing, which will be held in September. Carver claims he was wrongly convicted of the 2008 death of Irina Yarmolenko, a UNC Charlotte student. As previously discussed here, Carver’s attorney, Chris Mumma of the N.C. Center on Actual Innocence, has alleged that Gaston County District Attorney Locke Bell failed to comply with a court order directing him to turn over investigative and prosecutor files. No ruling on the contempt motion was entered, according to local media reports, and Mumma repeated her request for a contempt finding during the hearing.

As The Charlotte Observer reported on Monday: “Mumma and Bell have been wrangling for months over evidence. North Carolina is known as an ‘open-file discovery’ state in which the law requires attorneys to turn over their complete files to the opposing side.” Although the District Attorney’s Office provided Mumma with additional files during Monday’s hearing, the earlier concerns raised about Bell’s office’s full compliance appear to remain, with the presiding judge “elicit[ing] promises from Bell and Mumma that they would exchange all evidence before any hearing on the defense request for a new trial takes place.”

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Prosecutorial misconduct found in Massachusetts

Prosecutorial misconduct found in Massachusetts

The scandals marring Massachusetts’ state drug labs — and its criminal justice system — have taken a new turn. Former state chemists Sonja Farak and Annie Dookhan have both received their legal comeuppances for their misconduct. And at least one wrongfully convicted person, Leonardo Johnson, has been awarded $2 million as a result of being victimized by Dookhan’s lies. But last week, following months of hearings and as predicted, state prosecutors were held to account for their actions in a blistering court ruling.

Hampden County Superior Court Judge Richard J. Carey steadied his focus, and ire, on the State Attorney General’s Office. As reported in the Boston Herald, Judge Carey “ruled that two assistant AG’s engaged in ‘intentional, repeated, prolonged and deceptive withholding of evidence from defendants, the court and local prosecutors … (conduct that was) egregious and harmful to the administration of justice.’”

Judge Carey found that the two prosecutors “tampered with the fair administration of justice” by failing to produce — and by deliberately concealing — documents that the Commonwealth was required to turn over to defendants on trial. They also made material misrepresentations to another judge, conduct that Judge Carey deemed “a fraud upon the court.” In addition to his findings of prosecutorial misconduct, Judge Carey dismissed the convictions of seven defendants and allowed another to withdraw his guilty plea.

“The ramifications from their misconduct are nothing short of systemic,” Carey wrote in his lengthy order, and were “in many ways more damning.”

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