Faulty ID sent Idaho man to prison for life, Supreme Court says in freeing him

John D. Wurdemann
John D. Wurdemann

The Idaho Supreme Court on Tuesday ruled that John D. Wurdemann received inadequate legal assistance when he was convicted of beating a woman forced off Interstate 84 west of Caldwell in 2000.

The high court upheld an August 2015 decision by Senior Canyon County Judge Renae Hoff that Wurdemann, now 46, received inadequate legal representation at his 2002 trial. Hoff threw out Wurdemann’s conviction and sentence and ordered a new trial.

“I am relieved by this decision for Mr. Wurdemann. He served nearly 15 years for a crime he did not commit,” said Elisa Massoth, a Payette attorney who represented Wurdemann in his appeal.

The state has the ability to retry her client, but Massoth — who said she believes in her client’s innocence — said it would be difficult to convict him without victim Linda LeBrane’s identification.

“With the Supreme Court’s decision referencing suppression of the improperly identification at trial level, there is no credible evidence that connects Mr. Wurdemann to this crime,” Massoth said.

The Canyon County Prosecutor’s Office is studying the opinion and will review the case before deciding whether to retry Wurdemann, county spokesman Joe Decker said.

The legal victory comes after setback: Wurdemann is back in jail after allegedly violating the terms of his release.

He was arrested in Oregon and also charged with attempting to elude law enforcement there, and in both states with being a felon in possession of a firearm.

Massoth said the Supreme Court ruling will not affect any of the other charges against Wurdemann.

Nearly two years after the 2000 attack, victim Linda LeBrane picked Wurdemann out of a video lineup, saying he was the man was one of four people who severely beat her as she drove from Washington state to Utah. The identification of Wurdemann came after she picked out men other than Wurdemann as her attacker from at least three other photo lineups.

LeBrane had described her attacker to police as a “very, very tall and thin” Hispanic or Native American man with long, dark, greasy hair. She also said the man had a “really bad rash” on his face and did not have facial hair. She said the man spoke English.

In the video lineup, Wurdemann was one of six men shown to LeBrane. Only three of the men, including Wurdemann, had long hair and both of them were much shorter than Wurdemann. One did not speak English and the other had significant facial hair.

“Thus, Wurdemann was the only participant in the lineup who could be fairly described as being tall, thin, Hispanic or Native American, with long, dark hair, no facial hair and able to speak English,” Chief Justice Roger Burdick wrote in the 13-page decision.

“Such a lineup is the epitome of an improperly suggestive lineup,” Burdick wrote.

The high court noted that Dr. Daniel Reisberg, a psychology professor at Reed College in Portland, Ore., and who testifies extensively as an expert on witness identifications, testified at a lower court hearing that the identification of Wurdemann was “among the worst video lineups” he had ever seen. He said Wurdemann was the only participant who met LeBrane’s description of her attacker.

The Supreme Court said that at the time of the video lineup, Wurdemann, a Native American, did not have a rash or pockmarks on his face. A photo taken of him three months after the attack showed him with only one or two blemishes on his face. The court said it was possible he had a rash or other markings on his face at the time of the attack that later cleared up.

Wayne Christie, a Canyon County detective who investigated the beating, wrote in an affidavit that another man more closely matched the composite drawing of LeBrane’s attacker. That man was a known accomplice of Jeremy Sanchez, another man convicted in LeBrane’s attack.

Witness identification is notoriously unreliable, Massoth said. DNA tests have led to 349 exonerations nationwide. Of those, 249 involved eyewitness misidentifications, she said.

“While Mr. Wurdemann’s case does not involve DNA, his misidentification is evidence of a nationwide problem,” Massoth said.

Sanchez is serving a life sentence in the Idaho State Correctional Institution following conviction for attempted murder and five other charges linked to LeBrane’s beating.

The positive identification of Wurdemann by LeBrane took place nearly two years after the June 2000 attack. The court said such a long lapse of time is a “seriously negative factor” in determining the reliability of an identification.

“The negative effect is further compounded because LeBrane made multiple incorrect identifications in the two-year interval,” Burdick wrote.

The high court also determined that defense attorneys Scott Fouser and Van Bishop failed to provide Wurdemann adequate representation when they failed to challenge the validity of LeBrane’s identification of their client.

“Because the reliability of the identification does not outweigh the suggestiveness of the video lineup in which Wurdemann was identified as LeBrane’s attacker, and because the decision not to challenge the lineup was based on inadequate preparation and ignorance of the relevant law, we hold that trial counsel’s failure to challenge the video lineup with a motion to suppress or an objection constituted ineffective assistance of counsel and violated Wurdemann’s Sixth Amendment right to the same,” Burdick wrote.

Co-defendant Sarah Pearce, who was sentenced to 15 years to life in prison on similar charges, also maintained her innocence and claimed LeBrane misidentified her. She was released early from prison in March 2014 after the Idaho Innocence Project took up her case, but her conviction was not overturned and she was given five years of probation to serve.

Last year, Pearce was returned to prison following a probation violation for drug-related charges in Ada and Gem counties. She is scheduled for a parole hearing in May. If denied for release, she could remain in prison until December 2019.

Wurdemann’s older brother, Kenneth Wurdemann Jr., now 48, was sentenced to 10 to 13 years in prison for just two charges related to the attack. Briefly paroled and then returned to prison on a parole violation, he was released in December 2015.

John Sowell: 208-377-6423, @IDS_Sowell