For the first time in nearly a dozen years, Sarah Pearce will wake up Saturday as a free woman.
Convicted in 2003 of six felonies in connection with a vicious attack on a motorist passing through Canyon County, Pearce was freed Friday evening.
"There's just really no words. It's all just emotion," she told reporters after she walked out of the Canyon County Jail and into her mother's arms.
Pearce wasn't exonerated, something she and her supporters have wanted for years. The guilty verdicts stand. But her life sentence does not.
Third District Judge Juneal Kerrick, who in January 2004 sentenced Pearce to 15 years to life in the June 2000 attack on Linda LeBrane, amended that sentence to time served. And Kerrick noted that the 11 years and 215 days Pearce had spent in jail and prison already adds up to substantially more time than the 10 years fixed that prosecutors offered her - and she declined - during her initial trial.
BOTH SIDES SPEAK
LeBrane spoke movingly of the pain, fear and life-altering trauma she has endured for the past 14 years, insisting that it was Pearce who helped commandeer her car off Interstate 84 and urged three men to kill her. LeBrane's assailants slit her throat, beat her with a baseball bat, stabbed her more than a dozen times, robbed her, set her car on fire and left her for dead.
"Sarah was the ringleader," LeBrane said in court. "She kept screaming to the men ... 'kill her, kill her.' I begged her again and again for mercy and she showed me no mercy."
Pearce, who was 19 when she was convicted, responded by softly stating, "This is a tragic misidentification."
"I did not commit this crime, but all the same I was punished for it," she told Kerrick. "The experience goes almost too deep for words. I will try to walk away from this taking more from it than it has taken from me."
LeBrane spoke of chronic pain, crippling fear and a financial toll that includes foreclosure on the family home and the loss of the ability to work.
"And there's been a dramatic loss of who I am, or was," LeBrane said: "Joyful, hopeful, feeling safe."
Kerrick said Pearce's case has been difficult since the beginning.
"Mrs. LeBrane suffered such a horrible, horrible crime. ... There's no taking away from what she has suffered," the judge said, noting that the victim's certainty that Pearce was one of her attackers "has to be respected."
On the other hand, she said, Pearce has insisted from the beginning that she is innocent, and the original female suspect in the case met LeBrane's initial description better than Pearce does.
A post-conviction relief case, filed in 2008, raised numerous questions about the identification of Pearce as the female attacker, Kerrick said. The deal that led to Pearce's release was a compromise between prosecutors and Pearce's lawyers, she said.
"For what the female attacker did, that sentence was totally appropriate," Kerrick said.
She told Pearce: "If in fact you did not commit these crimes, then one day (in prison) was too many. So there has been tremendous loss on both sides."
Kerrick said the deal aims for a "balance of justice and mercy."
The deal calls for Pearce to spend five years on probation and pay about $53,000 in restitution to LeBrane. She may not appeal the new sentence.
The Idaho Innocence Project has championed Pearce's cause for about seven years, and project Director Greg Hampikian said the fact that Pearce remains a convicted felon doesn't dampen the joy of her release.
Pearce's mother, Anita Brown, concurred.
"She's coming home. That's a great start," Brown said.
TEARS AND JOY
After Kerrick ruled that Pearce could be freed, her family and supporters had to wait about 45 minutes for her release to be processed at the county jail.
About 25 family members and other supporters crowded into the jail's entrance room, all eyes - and smartphones and media cameras - trained on the door labeled "8."
The group cheered as Pearce walked out wearing a black sweater, a white shirt and a grin. Then the group waited as mother and daughter embraced for several minutes, kissing and gazing at each other and reveling in the kind of contact they hadn't enjoyed for more than a decade.
After hugging and thanking many others, Pearce talked briefly to the media, still holding her mother's hand.
Asked whether she'd ever lost hope, Pearce said: "This woman right here never let me lose hope. I knew someday ... someday moves further and further away at times, but I knew someday this would come."
In the courtroom, Pearce expressed hope for rebuilding her life.
"What I want with my future is to be successful not just with my probation, but with my life," Pearce said.
She held a box of chocolate-flavored cereal - a gift from one of her attorneys - and went into a little more detail.
"I want to help fight for the wrongfully incarcerated," she said.
What about her first night home?
"I'm going to hold my mom, and I'm going to look at my family," she said.
"I'm ready to go home now."
Kristin Rodine: 377-6447