When Sarah Pearce walked into a Canyon County courtroom Tuesday afternoon, she grinned at her mother and mouthed, “We’re OK.”
In the same courtroom in January 2004, Judge Juneal Kerrick sentenced Pearce to 15 years to life in prison in connection with a brutal assault on a motorist passing through the Treasure Valley.
Now a proposed deal, struck Tuesday but not yet formalized or approved by Kerrick, might set Pearce free. The deal would not overturn her conviction, but it would amend her sentence.
“The issue of innocence is not before the court,” Canyon County Deputy Prosecutor Mike Porter said.
“The issue is freedom,” said Boise State University professor Greg Hampikian, whose Idaho Innocence Project has been fighting to get Pearce out of prison for about seven years.
Once a deal is drafted and approved by all parties to get Pearce released, her defense team can decide whether to push for a new trial.
Pearce, now 31, was sentenced on six felonies: aggravated battery, kidnapping, robbery, criminal conspiracy, and aiding and abetting attempted first-degree murder.
For now, Pearce’s mother is just delighted that her daughter could be home in a few days.
JUSTICE VS. MERCY
On Tuesday morning, as on every morning for the past decade, Anita Brown awoke to the knowledge that her daughter was in prison.
“This afternoon, there’s a possible resolution to this, and an end,” Brown said. “Tonight when I go home I’m going to sleep better than I have in 12 years.”
At her home in western Washington, victim Linda LeBrane greeted the news with resignation and steadfast conviction that Pearce, despite claims of innocence, was among those who commandeered LeBrane’s car on Interstate 84 in June 2000.
Her assailants took her to a remote site, where they beat her, stabbed her, set her car on fire and left her for dead. The brutal, unprovoked attack on a lone motorist horrified Treasure Valley residents, and four people — Pearce, Jeremy Sanchez and brothers John and Ken Wurdemann — were eventually arrested and convicted.
“It’s the difference between justice and mercy,” LeBrane said. “The justice is that she was convicted and found guilty. The mercy is that Judge Kerrick is reconsidering her sentence.”
She said Canyon County prosecutors flew to Seattle on Monday to go over the proposed deal with her before introducing it in court Tuesday.
“I’m OK with it as long as she doesn’t come after me,” said LeBrane, who noted that she is still tormented by her injuries and memories. “That’s my greatest fear. I know it’s not really rational.”
Canyon County Prosecutor Bryan Taylor issued a statement saying his office would not agree to “any settlement term that minimizes the tremendous impact this heinous crime had on its victim or on our community’s sense of safety and security.”
He also stressed the importance of protecting “the victim’s right to be heard,” and LeBrane said she plans to attend the hearing at which Pearce’s fate is determined so she can present a statement.
Scott Fouser, one of Pearce’s attorneys, said that hearing could come in a few days, but no date has been set. Kerrick asked both sides to draw up the documents and gain Pearce’s approval before coming back to the judge for a ruling.
Details of the proposed deal have not been revealed, but Fouser said it would mean no more prison time, with Pearce likely released on probation. The deal does not require Pearce to profess guilt, he said.
CLAIMS OF INNOCENCE
Although the tentative agreement has no bearing on Pearce’s guilt or innocence, Hampikian remains convinced that Pearce, 17 when LeBrane was attacked, had nothing to do with it.
The Idaho Innocence Project has identified another woman it believes to be the guilty party. She was initially a suspect in the LeBrane case, but investigators turned their attention to Pearce after the initial suspect reportedly passed a lie detector test, Hampikian said. That finding was later called into question, he said, but Pearce had already been convicted.
The female attacker was initially described as a short woman who appeared to be the girlfriend of one of the men and spoke Spanish in front of LeBrane, he said.
“But Sarah is taller, has never spoken Spanish and she’s a lesbian,” Hampikian said.
He said he hopes that prosecutors pursue the other possible suspect and eventually determine that Pearce’s claims of innocence are true.
Like 70 percent of exonerations of convicted criminals, Hampikian said, Pearce’s case hinges on “a bad ID” and “tunnel vision” from investigators and prosecutors who are sure that they have the right person.
The Idaho Innocence Project has worked on Pearce’s case since 2007, putting in many hundreds of hours. It’s one of two cases the group kept after losing key federal funding last year.
“It’s remarkably time-intensive to unbake a cake,” Hampikian said. “It’s much better to get it right the first time.”
Pearce’s mother said she has “a wealth of gratitude” for the Innocence Project and all who have championed her daughter’s case.
LeBrane, in turn, is grateful to prosecutors who won’t let the public forget that this latest development doesn’t mean that the court has decided Pearce didn’t do it.
“I have nothing but admiration for them,” LeBrane said of prosecutors. “They continue to have just total respect and care for me as a person. And that means a lot.”
Kristin Rodine: 377-6447