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Link should stay in prison, panel says

Thu., March 11, 2010, 3:50 p.m.

OLYMPIA – Convicted cop killer Lonnie Link does not warrant a lighter sentence for shooting Spokane police Officer Brian Orchard in 1983, even though he helped federal prosecutors bring down more than two dozen members of an outlaw motorcycle gang after he went to prison, a state board said Thursday.

The state Clemency and Pardons Board heard what members agreed was an extraordinary plea to commute Link’s sentence of life without parole and make him eligible for release.

The prosecutor who convicted him, former Spokane County Prosecutor Don Brockett and one of the detectives involved in the case joined Link’s former defense attorney Mark Vovos in arguing for clemency for Link.

“I believe the verdict was unjust,” Brockett said. “I’m here today because I think it’s the right thing to do.”

But the current prosecutor, Steve Tucker, joined Orchard’s family and the state’s law enforcement community in arguing against clemency. While it’s true Link later helped convict many members of the Ghost Riders by testifying in later trials in the late 1980s, that’s no reason to commute his sentence, Tucker said: “His reward was to be put under the federal witness protection program.”

The board recommended unanimously against clemency, although the final decision rests with Gov. Chris Gregoire.

If Gregoire meant what she said about the state not forgetting the sacrifices of slain officers and their families, she’ll reject it too, said Debbie Jacobs, Orchard’s daughter, who was 18 when he was killed.

Link was a 24-year-old convicted burglar in 1983 and an associate of the Ghost Riders when the gang’s president, Al Hegge, told him and another man, Donald Beach, to steal guns from a Wenatchee couple. They later arranged to sell the guns back in an extortion plot, and were supposed to collect the money at a downtown Spokane hotel. Link told detectives later that he had planned to double-cross Hegge, take the money and flee, cutting all ties with the gang.

But police were tipped to the extortion scheme, and were waiting for Link and Beach that night near the hotel. Link was waiting in a car while Beach went to the hotel room; Orchard and another plainclothes officer approached the car. Police and witnesses said the officers identified themselves and told Link to put his hands on the dashboard. Link said he thought Orchard, who had a shaggy beard, was either Hegge or another gang member, saw a flash and feared for his life. He shot and fatally wounded Orchard and escaped, but was later captured in Oregon.

Link refused to mention any connection between him and Hegge or the gang at trial. He later said Hegge threatened to kill him and his family. The jury convicted him, but deadlocked over the death penalty and he received life without parole.

After sentencing, he agreed to help a federal task force investigating the Ghost Riders, and his testimony was responsible for about 25 convictions, said former Detective Brent Pfundheller, who worked on those cases and has kept in contact with Link, who remains in prison but under the witness protection program.

“He killed Brian Orchard, he should pay the price for that,” Pfundheller said. But he should have been charged with first-degree murder, and even if sentenced to life in 1985, he’d likely be paroled by now. “I believe he’s truly remorseful. He’s changed.”

But Douglas Orchard, the late officer’s brother, said Link is a con man.

“There’s no reason on God’s earth to grant Link commutation,” Douglas Orchard said. “You cannot know how much this hurts. Mr. Link and his attorneys re-victimize us with his petitions.”

Brockett agreed that if he thought Link truly believed Orchard was a gang member, not a policeman, and was afraid for his life, Link would’ve been charged with first-degree murder even though he was committing a crime at the time of the shooting. Last year, a Spokane jury acquitted an off-duty police officer who shot an unarmed suspect, contending he thought the man was armed and threatening his life, Brockett noted, and if the self-defense argument applies to Officer Jay Olsen, it could apply to Link.

“If equal justice means anything, it has to apply to everyone,” he said.

But current and former police officers argued that Link got leniency when the jury didn’t sentence him to death. Releasing him would send the wrong message, particularly after the murders of six officers in Western Washington late last year.

“This is a violation of Brian Orchard’s memory… it victimizes his family and the people that put their lives on the line to be out on the street protecting us against the Lonnie Links and the Maurice Clemmons of this world,” said Douglas Orchard, referring to the man who shot and killed four police officers in Lakewood, Wash., in November.

Members of the clemency board said they were unswayed by the arguments supporting Link, and noted that similar requests from him had been rejected in 1992 and 1996.

Board member Amanda Lee said she couldn’t say she would never commute a life sentence given to someone who killed a police officer, under the right circumstances: “I don’t know what those facts are, but these aren’t those facts.”

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