BOISE – Idaho’s capital city’s been rocked recently by horrifying crime news, from the first-degree murder arrests of the mother and mother’s boyfriend in the case of an 8-year-old boy, Robert Manwill, whose disappearance prompted an intensive community search, to the double life sentences handed down to John Delling, the mentally ill young man who went on a road-trip rampage aimed at tracking down and murdering his childhood friends.
Less noticed has been something going on behind the scenes: a possible new twist in another terrible crime. The Idaho Innocence Project at Boise State University says it has unearthed evidence showing that Sarah Pearce, a woman who was convicted in 2003 for the savage beating of a Washington state motorist who was passing through the area on the freeway, may actually be innocent, in a case of mistaken identity.
“There are now witnesses that have come forward with a different story … that clears Sarah and clearly implicates someone else,” said Greg Hampikian, a forensic scientist, biology and criminal justice professor and director of the Innocence Project. “But that’s got to be fully investigated.”
Linda LeBrane, then 52, of Port Townsend, Wash., was driving on the freeway through Canyon County late at night in June 2000, headed to a family cabin, when a car with four people in it forced her off the road. Three men and a woman stabbed her and beat her with a baseball bat, then slashed her throat and set her car on fire. She survived, and the shocking crime was featured on shows including “America’s Most Wanted.”
Three men, and later a woman, Pearce, were arrested and convicted of multiple felonies in the attack. LeBrane identified her attackers.
But Pearce maintained her innocence, and said she was incorrectly identified in a video lineup nearly two years after the attack. LeBrane had identifed two other women in earlier photo lineups.
Three other witnesses, including a motorist who was at a rest stop and a motel clerk, identified Pearce in the video lineup and in court as having been with the men before or after the attack, though there was an odd conflict in the motel report: LeBrane’s stolen credit card was used 60 miles away in Jordan Valley, Ore., half an hour after the alleged motel sighting, by a group matching the attackers’ descriptions – three Hispanic men and a Hispanic woman, in a maroon car.
Pearce appealed her conviction to the Idaho Supreme Court in 2008, but the high court rejected the appeal.
In June, however, in response to the new information, new Canyon County Prosecutor John Bujak reopened Pearce’s case.
Hampikian said, “We believe that a mistake was made in this case, and that there is potentially someone who has committed a crime who is still on the streets while the wrong person is behind bars.”
The victim lost her glasses during the attack and said she was nearsighted and had difficulty seeing. Also, she acknowledged being under the influence of marijuana, having smoked two marijuana cigarettes, according to court records.
However, Hampikian said, “The victim was really helpful, in that she gave a good description of the woman involved, including that the woman spoke Spanish to a man who could have been her boyfriend, and that she was pretty and petite. Sarah doesn’t date men, she doesn’t speak Spanish, and she really never dressed in a feminine manner at all. … And Sarah’s 5-foot-6.
One of the male assailants testified that Pearce wasn’t the female attacker, then said he didn’t know if she was, and that he’d never seen the woman before that night. Pearce was 17 at the time of the attack.
Pearce’s appeal to the Idaho Supreme Court rested in part on the lower court’s refusal to admit her expert witness to challenge the video lineup procedure used to identify her. Justice Jim Jones, in a dissent, called that “reversible error.”
“In this case the issue of eyewitness identification was crucial because there was very little other evidence connecting Pearce to the crime,” Jones wrote in his dissent. “In fact, there appears to be direct evidence inconsistent with a finding of guilt.”
The Idaho Innocence Project, housed at Boise State University, trains law enforcement agencies in best forensic practices, and works to “correctly identify perpetrators of crime and exonerate the falsely accused.”
Hampikian said the project works “with police departments and victims as well as prisoners and their families to find the truth. We’re more than an innocence project – we help find the truly guilty people, too.”
Hampikian said he’s been involved with five exonerations nationwide, and “all of them involved bad ID.”
“When you rely very heavily on eyewitness ID,” he said, “sometimes they’re wrong.”