The Idaho Supreme Court today overturned the murder conviction of twice-convicted Mark Henry Lankford, ruling that prosecutorial misconduct in his second trial for the 1983 murders of Robert and Cheryl Bravence violated his right to a fair trial; in a 3-2 decision, the high court ordered a new trial for Lankford. You can read the full 39-page opinion here.
In today’s decision, authored by Justice Joel Horton, the court found that prosecutors failed to disclose promises of leniency made to a witness – a fellow inmate who testified about a purported jailhouse confession and later was released from prison three months early. Those promises included that a prosecutor told the witness he’d try to help the witness “get out of the prison system” and requested that prosecutors be “liberal” in their treatment of the witness’ case. That, the high court found, constituted prosecutorial misconduct.
Lankford and his brother, Bryan Lankford, were both convicted and sentenced to death for the 1983 murders of the Bravences, a young Texas couple who were clubbed to death while camping in Idaho County; they were robbed of their money, credit cards and vehicle. The brother’s death sentence was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1991 because the state failed to provide him notice that the death penalty could be imposed. Mark Lankford’s original conviction and sentence were vacated by the 9th Circuit in 2006, based in part on ineffective assistance of counsel; the appeals court ordered Idaho to either retry or release him. In 2008, a jury again convicted him of both murders and he was sentenced to two consecutive life sentences.
Lankford appealed again, and this time, in 2016, the Idaho Supreme Court overturned his conviction, due to prosecutorial misconduct regarding the witness in the second trial. The state sought rehearing of the case, and today, the decision again overturned the conviction.
The prosecutor’s failure to disclose the full details of the agreement with the inmate-witness “undermines our confidence in the outcome of the trial,” the court found, “such that we cannot be sure the defendant received a fair trial, understood as a trial resulting in a verdict worthy of confidence. Therefore, we hold that Lankford’s right to a fair trial was violated and that he is entitled to a new trial.”
Justices Daniel Eismann and Warren Jones concurred in Horton’s decision; Justices Roger Burdick and Robyn Brody dissented. They wrote that they thought the aid given to the inmate-witness was adequately disclosed by statements in the trial.
The two brothers each blamed each other for the murders. Both remain in prison.