A man and a woman who served four years for a 1990 strangling were released from prison Monday, three weeks after the “Happy Face Killer” was convicted of the crime.
“There’s no longer any doubt that these two individuals are innocent. The evidence is compelling,” Circuit Judge Paul Lipscomb said.
Laverne Pavlinac, 62, and her former boyfriend, John Sosnovske, 42, went free two months after Keith Hunter Jesperson confessed to the strangling of Taunja Bennett. He was convicted of the murder on Nov. 2.
Jesperson, a former Spokane County resident, was nicknamed the Happy Face Killer for the smiley faces he drew on letters claiming responsibility for eight murders.
“I’m happy to be with my family and my grandchildren,” Pavlinac said after her release. “I’m real, real sorry that this whole thing happened.”
Pavlinac had told police she helped her boyfriend kill Bennett and dispose of her body. But at her trial, Pavlinac recanted, saying that she had lied in an attempt to escape her abusive relationship with Sosnovske.
She was convicted anyway and sentenced to life in prison after jurors heard her taped confession. Sosnovske pleaded no contest to murder to avoid the death penalty and also got life.
Jesperson began a letter-writing campaign to news outlets after his arrest earlier this year, claiming responsibility for the slaying. Jesperson said the couple should be freed.
Prosecutors joined the effort to free Pavlinac and Sosnovske after Jesperson led authorities to the victim’s purse.
But the confession alone wasn’t enough to convince Lipscomb to release Pavlinac and Sosnovske. Last month, days before Jesperson’s conviction, the judge said Jesperson’s involvement didn’t necessarily absolve Pavlinac and Sosnovske.
On Monday, the judge finally set aside Sosnovske’s conviction, saying his civil rights had been violated because of Pavlinac’s lies. The judge berated Pavlinac for concocting the story and refused to set aside her conviction.
But Lipscomb released Pavlinac anyway, saying a prison term for a crime she did not commit would be cruel and unusual punishment.
The judge said Pavlinac violated Sosnovske’s constitutional rights when she had police wire her for sound, then attempted to coax incriminating statements from him.
“By preying on his known weakness and propensity for alcoholic blackouts, she attempted to convince him that he had killed Ms. Bennett in an alcoholic fog and that she had helped him ditch the body,” Lipscomb said.
Pavlinac had told police in detail how she held the rope around Bennett’s neck as Sosnovske raped Bennett. She said she then helped Bennett dispose of the body.
In court Monday, Pavlinac stood in wrist and ankle shackles and apologized to her former boyfriend.
“I can’t undo what I did, but I’m very sorry,” she said.
Asked if he had a statement, Sosnovske said: “I didn’t murder anybody in 1990.”
Jesperson, an interstate trucker, claims to have slain eight women in five states. He is serving a life sentence for Bennett’s slaying.