Before prosecutors can retry the suspect in a brutal 2000 attack, they must first hear if John Wurdemann was properly released from prison in the first place.
In 2015, a judge decided Wurdemann, 46, had inadequate defense in his initial trial connected to the attempted murder of Linda LeBrane in 2000.
Wurdemann and three other people were accused of beating LeBrane, a passing motorist from Washington, robbing her, setting her car on fire and leaving her for dead outside Caldwell.
He was convicted of conspiracy, attempted murder, robbery and kidnapping. But in 2015, his conviction and sentence was thrown out by 3rd District Court Judge Ranae Hoff.
Wurdemann has always maintained his innocence.
Part of the reason Wurdemann’s conviction was thrown out was because his defense attorneys in 2002, Van Bishop and Scott Fouser, never brought an expert witness to trial to challenge how LeBrane identified the four people she claimed attacked her.
The “identifications were likely not reliable and may have been provided under suggestive conditions,“ Hoff wrote in her decision, according to previous reports. “These attorneys were ineffective by failing to take the necessary steps to challenge the line-ups and identifications properly.”
On Jan. 23, Deputy Attorney General Kenneth Jorgensen went before the Idaho Supreme Court and pitched arguments on why Hoff’s decision should be overturned.
Jorgensen told the court that Hoff, when considering the ruling, failed to apply the proper presumption that a person’s attorney is competent when it comes to what evidence is or is not presented at trial, according to an audio recording of the hearing.
Wurdemann’s trial attorney from 2002 has said the decision to only use cross-examination, rather than an expert witness, was a “tactical” decision.
“Nothing was presented that (the defense) was ignorant of the law, that he was ignorant of the facts, that he was ignorant of procedure, that he failed to conduct any sort of reasonable investigation, that he failed to conduct any sort of reasonable research, there was none of that,” Jorgensen told the court. “Absolutely none of that.”
Wurdemann’s current attorney, Elisa Massoth, disputed Jorgensen’s claims, saying the 2002 trial defense was inadequate and the decision against having an expert witness “was not tactical, because it was not based on an investigation or adequate preparation.”
“There have been more than 300 wrongful convictions based on witness misidentification across the United States,” Massoth told the court. “John Wurdemann is one of many.”
The defense could be deemed inadequate, Massoth said, because the defense attorneys did not consult anyone before deciding not to use an expert witness.
Wurdemann’s co-defendant, Sarah Pearce, now 34, also had her sentence overturned due to suspected misidentification.
Pearce was originally sentenced to 15 years to life in prison on similar charges. She was released early from prison in March 2014 with help from the Idaho Innocence Project.
Jorgensen noted that the standards of consulting experts have changed for defense attorneys since the 2002 trial.
“I think that as I stand before the court, I would have to say that I am much more cognizant of witness identification issues than I was in 2002,” Jorgensen told the court. “And so it may sound a little bit unreasonable to this court today that an expert was not brought in and consulted, but in 2002 that was hardly the case.”
Jorgensen argued that much of Wurdemann’s appeal has revolved around the changes in Pearce’s case, but Pearce was only released from prison in the last few years, not in 2002.
“It took over 14 years to obtain the relief and release of John Wurdemann for a crime that he did not commit,” Massoth told the court. “He had no part on the attack on Linda LeBrane. We ask that you uphold the district court’s decision granting post-conviction relief.”
Canyon County prosecutors may decide to retry Wurdemann, but that can’t happen until the appellate court makes a decision. It’s unknown when the Supreme Court will issue its written opinion in Wurdemann’s case.
While Pearce’s sentence was reduced to five years of probation, her conviction was not overturned. In 2015 and 2016, Pearce had a variety of probation violations that led to her ultimate return to prison.
She completed a prison-based treatment program and was released on probation, but that probation was revoked and she is now in the Elmore County jail.
Pearce will be eligible for parole on July 22.
Kenneth Wurdemann Jr. and Jeremy Flores Sanchez were also sentenced in connection to the LeBrane attack.
Kenneth Wurdemann Jr. was sentenced to 10 to 13 years in prison for his role in the attack. He completed his sentence in December 2015 and was released.
Sanchez remains in prison and is serving a life sentence.