Linehan seeks public defender for second murder trial

BANKRUPT: Husband filed, says first trial cost family about $1million

Anchorage Daily NewsApril 28, 2010 

Linehan seeks public defender for second murder trial

Mechele Linehan appeared in Superior Court for a pre-trial conference on Tuesday. (Bill Roth/Anchorage Daily News)

BILL ROTH/ANCHORAGE DAILY NEWS

Mechele Linehan, who has remained behind bars since her conviction for murder was overturned three months ago, appeared in court Tuesday for the first time in years to begin the process of getting out on bail and preparing for a new trial.

Linehan requested a public defender and a bail hearing, which was then scheduled for today.

Public defenders are defense attorneys provided at government expense. Linehan had a private attorney for her first trial but has since run out of money.

Her husband, Colin, is a family-practice doctor in Olympia, Wash., but he recently filed for bankruptcy. She has been working in the prison but pay is well below minimum wage and inmates usually use their pay for things like toiletries.

The Linehan family is in the red about $1 million after the trial and appeal by private lawyers, according to the recent bankruptcy filing.

The court proceeding Tuesday before Superior Court Judge Philip Volland was like rewinding the clock to before Linehan's 2007 trial. Most of the same players were in the courtroom. Linehan wore an orange prison uniform and sat with other defendants in what is normally the jury box, just like she did after her 2006 arrest.

The last time Linehan, now 37, appeared in court was in 2007 at her sentencing, and it was also before Volland. At the time, he said she had committed "a heinous crime" and sentenced her to the maximum 99 years in prison. In court Tuesday, he made little reference to the unusual circumstances that brought them all there together again.

In February, the Alaska Court of Appeals ruled that Volland made errors during the trial and threw out the jury's conviction. The decision gave Linehan the right to a new trial, which the state decided to pursue. Volland is scheduled to preside over the trial again.

Linehan is accused of the 1996 murder of Kent Leppink, a fisherman who met her when she was a stripper at the Bush Company club and who was obsessed with her. Prosecutors say Linehan manipulated former fiance John Carlin III to shoot Leppink so she could get Leppink's $1 million life insurance policy payout. Carlin was also convicted of the murder but was killed in prison before his appeal could be decided.

Both Linehan and Carlin said they were innocent. No hard evidence -- DNA, the murder weapon, fingerprints -- linked the pair to the murder, and jurors convicted them on circumstantial evidence such as e-mails exchanged between Linehan, Leppink and Carlin that show their entwined relationships, testimony from Carlin's son saying his father washed a handgun in the bathroom sink days after Leppink's body was found, and the life insurance policy.

The appeals judges said the evidence was subject to different interpretations and was "hardly overwhelming."

Linehan has been serving her sentence at Hiland Mountain, the state's women's prison in Eagle River. Her bail hearing scheduled for today could set her free until trial.

Whether or not Linehan gets a public defender will depend on her finances. Murder trials are expensive and the more complicated, the more costly. Very few are handled by private attorneys because of their price tag -- one like Linehan's could cost $300,000, local lawyers said.

Her first trial was handled by attorney Kevin Fitzgerald, who appeared on Linehan's behalf Tuesday but also told the court that at this point he would not be representing her.

Volland said he likely will be making the decision on whether Linehan gets a public defender after her financial assessment is reported to him.

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