The Alaska Court of Appeals on Friday overturned the murder conviction of former Olympia resident Mechele Linehan, leaving it to state prosecutors to decide whether to retry the former Alaska stripper.
The appeals court opinion concluded that Superior Court Judge Philip Volland, who presided at Linehan’s 2007 trial, never should have allowed the jury to hear testimony about the movie “The Last Seduction.” The court also said a letter written by victim Kent Leppink in the days before he died should not have been allowed.
The letter, which Leppink wrote to his parents, said Linehan was a likely culprit if he ended up dead.
“The State’s case against Linehan was circumstantial, and the evidence was subject to different interpretations and was hardly overwhelming,” wrote Chief Appeals Judge John Coats.
Leppink, a 36-year-old commercial fisherman from a well-to-do family, was found shot to death in Hope, Alaska, in 1996. Linehan and John Carlin III, the alleged triggerman, were arrested on murder charges in 2006. Both were convicted in separate trials in Anchorage, and Volland sentenced both to 99 years in prison.
Defense attorneys argued that the trial was a witch hunt in which Linehan’s character was judged, not her guilt or innocence. Linehan, now 37, admitted that she was reckless with people and manipulative in her relationships with men when she was in her early 20s but said that did not make her a killer.
At Linehan’s trial, prosecutor Pat Gullufsen claimed Linehan tried to emulate the lead character of “The Last Seduction” in plotting to kill Leppink. The appeals judges said the evidence never should have been allowed for several reasons, including that the circumstances of Leppink’s death were not similar to those in the 1994 movie.
It was the accusatory letter from Leppink to his parents that was the most damaging, the judges said. The judges would have overturned Linehan’s conviction on the basis of the letter alone, Judge David Mannheimer wrote in the 3-0 decision.
Linehan’s appeal lawyers, Jeff Feldman, Susan Orlansky and former Alaska Supreme Court Justice Alex Bryner, also tried to convince the Appeals Court that allowing evidence about Linehan’s job as a Bush Company stripper unfairly biased the jury. The court rejected that claim, saying they read the entire trial transcript and Gullufsen did not use Linehan’s former job against her.
The district attorney can choose to take the case to the Alaska Supreme Court, re-try it or set free Linehan, who has spent the years since her conviction at Hiland Mountain Correctional Facility in Eagle River. Deputy Attorney General Rick Svobodny said Friday morning that he had not yet read the 55-page opinion and would decide on a course of action later. Linehan’s alleged co-conspirator, Carlin, was killed at the Spring Creek Correctional Complex in a seemingly unrelated slaying; no one has been charged in his death.
Prosecutors say the motive in the slaying was Leppink’s $1 million life insurance policy payout. Linehan never got the money because Leppink changed the policy’s beneficiary in the days before his death, prosecutors said.
Linehan, who has always insisted she is innocent, admitted to being manipulative in her relationship with Leppink but said she had nothing to do with his death. She said she tried to cancel the life insurance policy.
Linehan, Carlin and Leppink were friends involved in a complicated love triangle while they lived in Carlin’s South Anchorage house when Leppink was killed.
Carlin already had been convicted by the time Linehan went to trial. Her defense strategy at the trial was that Carlin acted on his own. She has said, though, that she doesn’t know who killed Leppink.
Linehan was, at one time, a beneficiary on Leppink’s life insurance policy.
The Linehan case garnered national attention because prosecutors painted her as a manipulative, seductive, money-hungry stripper. Her friends and family say she is nothing like that and worked as a dancer for a little while in her early 20s only to earn money for college. She went on to move to Olympia, marry a doctor, have a family and earn a master’s degree in public administration. She has no other criminal convictions.
Linehan will remain in state custody until the case is sent back to Superior Court for processing. The state will have to say whether it intends to hold another trial or petition the Supreme Court, which can choose not to hear the case.
The Leppink family could not be reached for comment.
“Mechele was both pleased and full of appropriate questions about what happens next,” Orlansky said of her client’s reaction.
Linehan’s husband, Colin, reached Friday in Washington state, said he was just trying to take in the information and enjoy the day. There is a long road ahead for his family and him, he said.