Idaho’s highest court on Monday stood by its decision to order a retrial of one of two brothers accused in a double murder 34 years ago in north-central Idaho.
The Idaho Supreme Court overturned the murder conviction of Mark Henry Lankford, accused of brutally killing a Texas couple while they were camping in Idaho County in 1983. The court originally ordered a new trial on July 25, 2016. Monday’s decision came after the state asked for a new hearing.
In a 3-2 decision, the justices ruled that prosecutors committed misconduct when they failed to disclose damaging evidence against a critical witness in the state’s case against Lankford. The justices ruled that Lankford, now 61 and serving a life sentence for two counts of first-degree murder, must receive a new trial.
Here’s what went wrong in the first trial:
Lane Thomas, who had shared a jail cell with Lankford, testified that Lankford confessed to him that he killed U.S. Marine Capt. Robert Bravence, 27, and his wife, Cheryl, 25, while camping in the Sheep Creek area. Thomas told the jury that in exchange for his testimony, prosecutors said they would write a letter to state corrections officials at the state prison at Cottonwood, where Thomas was then incarcerated.
But Thomas didn’t disclose that a prosecutor had offered to help him get out of prison and placed on probation. The prosecutor had not shared that information with defense attorneys and did not correct the omission in Thomas’ testimony at trial.
“Affirmative personal intervention with the Latah County prosecutor to assist Thomas in getting out of prison and placed on probation is materially different than offering to write a letter to correctional authorities,” Justice Joel Horton wrote in the 39-page decision. “Thomas’ testimony to the jury that he was only getting a letter of cooperation was false and misleading.”
The Supreme Court said Thomas’ credibility as a witness was “essential” to Lankford’s conviction. Without Thomas’ testimony corroborating another witness’s testimony, “the state had little to no hope of securing Lankford’s conviction,” Horton wrote.
The high court concluded that there was a “reasonable likelihood” that Thomas’ false testimony about his motive for testifying “could have affected the judgment of the jury.”
The court concluded that Lankford’s right to a fair trial was violated.
Justices Daniel Eismann and Warren Jones concurred with Horton. Chief Justice Roger Burdick and Justice Robyn Brody dissented, saying they did not believe the prosecutor violated rules of evidence by not disclosing “every minute detail” about promises made to Thomas.
Authorities said the Bravences were beaten to death and their bodies hidden. The brothers stole the couple’s vehicles and credit cards and fled to California. They were arrested after they returned to their home state, Texas. The bodies were not discovered until three months after the Bravences were killed.
In 1984, Lankford and his brother, Bryan, now 56, were convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned Mark Lankford’s original conviction when it ruled the trial judge failed to inform jurors that they needed more than Bryan Lankford’s testimony to find his brother guilty. In 2008, Mark Lankford was convicted a second time for two counts of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Bryan Lankford’s death sentence was reversed when the U.S. Supreme Court found that the state failed to notify him that a death sentence could be imposed if he was found guilty. Bryan Lankford was given a life sentence with the possibility of parole. He is scheduled for a parole hearing in October 2018.