Hearsay, Conspiracy and Mechele Linehan
Back in 2009, Alaskans were fascinated by the murder trial of Mechele Linehan. Strippers. Multiple promises to marry. Conspiracies. Notes that lured a man to his death. Homicide. And an 11 year gap between the homicide and the trial, during which the stripper became a model suburban housewife and mother. Hollywood must be slavering for the movie rights.
Linehan was convicted of the first degree murder of one fiance’, Kent Leppnik. She was found to have manipulated another finace’, John Carlin III, into killing Leppnik. Much of the case turned on a letter written by Leppnik, sent to his family, with the instruction that it be opened in the event of his death. The letter accused Linehan of the homicide. That’s right, a Letter from the Grave trope in an Alaska homicide case.
The problem with the trope is that it is hearsay. Now hearsay is a big, giant, complicated mess in evidence law. John Henry Wigmore wrote a multi-volume treatise on it. But the heart of hearsay is right to confront and cross-examine witnesses who testify against you. You can’t cross-examine a letter from a dead man. Unless you can fit the letter into one of the exceptions to the hearsay rule, it couldn’t be used as evidence against her. And, after Linehan’s conviction, the Alaska Court of Appeals – the Alaska Supreme Court doesn’t usually hear criminal appeals – concluded that the trial court had gotten it wrong, that the letter, in the circumstances of Linehan’s trial and the issues there, didn’t fit any of the exceptions. The victim’s letter couldn’t be used in evidence. So Linehan’s conviction was overturned.
As was the re-indictment of her when the prosecutors again showed the Leppnik Letter from the Grave to the grand jury. You really can’t use the letter, guys.
(The Court of Appeals was also unhappy with Special Prosecutor Pat Gullefsen’s use of the movie The Last Seduction as a narrative “hook” for his case, but that was a minor issue.)
With the Letter from the Grave inadmissible and Carlin dead – killed in a prison fight, apparently – the State’s case was damaged. The State still had Linehan’s admitted participation in writing the note that sent Leppnik to his death in Hope, Alaska. The State still had other evidence that Linehan was manipulating her various lovers.
But the State concluded it didn’t have enough evidence to establish Linehan’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
So Linehan won’t be prosecuted. She served a little over two years during the appeal, but that’s the extent of her punishment. Carlin’s conviction was voided, a consequence of dying while the appeal was pending.
So, officially, no one has been found guilty of Kent Leppnik’s murder. Messy, and not what anyone – except perhaps Mechele Linehan – would call justice.