A man serving a 60-year sentence for a 1998 Colorado Springs murder has turned to the U.S. Supreme Court to ask for a judge’s review of whether the government knew that an informant’s key testimony was false at the time of trial.
“This is an extraordinary case,” wrote lawyers for Kent Eric LeBere in an Aug. 30 petition to the nation’s highest court. “Mr. LeBere has very substantial evidence that he was wrongly convicted of a crime he did not commit.”
A jury found LeBere guilty of second degree murder and arson for the death of Linda Richards. Her body was found strangled inside a burning van at a Colorado Springs car wash on the morning of Oct. 16, 1998. LeBere had been at a bar with Richards hours earlier and he admitted she gave him a ride when the two left. But records showed he had taken a taxi home shortly after witnesses reported the fire.
At trial, Ronnie Archuleta, who had been housed with LeBere in jail, testified that LeBere had admitted to raping and killing Richards. Archuleta also said the detective leading the investigation, J.D. Walker, promised to talk to the district attorney about one of Achuleta’s cases — for which he ultimately received a probation deal.
Archuleta subsequently recanted his testimony, claiming Walker had induced him into making up the confession.
“Detective Walker allowed Archuleta to testify at trial, and even told the jury that the testimony was believable because it included details that the police had discovered but that Archuleta could not have known unless the killer had told him,” LeBere’s petition to the Supreme Court explained. But allegedly, Walker in actuality “disbelieved important parts of Archuleta’s story as soon as he heard them, and did not try to corroborate the other parts.”
The developments in LeBere’s case attracted the attention of U.S. Rep. Jim Ramstad, R-Minn., who helped LeBere launch an appeal.
“I just think all of this adds up to a question of whether Mr. LeBere received a fair trial,” said Ramstad, who died last year.
State courts did not grant him a new trial, and LeBere turned to the federal court system to argue the government suppressed material evidence that was favorable to him in violation of the Supreme Court’s Brady v. Maryland decision. Specifically, LeBere claimed the government should have disclosed that Walker helped fabricate testimony, or that his and Archuleta’s testimony was untrue.
The case made its way up to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit multiple times, with rulings favorable to LeBere. Although a lower court judge was unpersuaded that jurors depended on the false testimony to convict LeBere, the 10th Circuit sent the appeal back for further review because jurors could have questioned the police’s other findings had they known about the made-up confession.
But U.S. District Court Senior Judge Marcia S. Krieger subsequently sided against LeBere, finding his constitutional rights had not been violated. It was not credible, in her view, for a detective to approach a detainee and enlist him in reciting a false confession.
“Mr. LeBere has failed to show by a preponderance of the evidence that Detective Walker knew (or even should have known) that Mr. Archuleta’s claim that Mr. LeBere had confessed to him was false,” she wrote in 2020.
The 10th Circuit declined to review her decision earlier this year, prompting LeBere’s appeal to the Supreme Court.
LeBere is arguing the lower courts should have evaluated not merely whether Walker had a role in fabricating the testimony, but whether he learned of its falsity in some other way.
“This case presents a serious risk that an innocent man has been wrongly convicted of and imprisoned for a murder he did not commit,” his attorneys at Faegre Drinker Biddle & Reath wrote to the Supreme Court. “The most that could be said against Mr. LeBere was that he was last person seen with Ms. Richards, was in the general vicinity at the time her body was found, and gave an unclear account of his actions between those two times. But no physical evidence linked Mr. LeBere to the crime — not hair, not DNA, not footprints, not blood — and Mr. LeBere had no apparent motive to commit it.”
The Colorado Attorney General’s Office indicated the state would not respond to LeBere’s petition. Roughly 7,000 cases are filed with the Supreme Court for review each year. For its 2019 term, the Court heard oral arguments in only 73 of those.
The case is LeBere v. Trani et al.