ANCHORAGE - An Alaska appellate court on Friday awarded a new trial to a former stripper-turned-soccer-mom who was convicted of plotting to kill her former fiance for money.
Prosecutors at Mechele Linehan's 2007 trial said she was inspired by watching the 1994 movie "The Last Seduction," in which a femme fatale coaxes her lover into killing her husband for money.
The Alaska Court of Appeals ruled Friday that the trial judge wrongly allowed prosecutors to introduce a letter written by Linehan's former fiance, Kent Leppink, shortly before he was fatally shot on an isolated Alaska trail in 1996.
Leppink's letter to his parents asserted that Linehan would probably be responsible if he died suspiciously. He urged them to be sure "to take Mechele DOWN. Make sure she is prosecuted."
Linehan was arrested in 2006. By that time, she had married a doctor, earned college degrees and moved to Olympia, Wash. She was convicted in October 2007 of plotting with another man who hoped to marry her, John Carlin III, to kill Leppink in hopes of receiving $1 million in life insurance money.
The 37-year-old Linehan has been serving a 99-year sentence. Carlin was convicted separately in Leppink's death and was later killed in prison.
Linehan attorneys argued that her conviction should be overturned because the jury was allowed to read Leppink's letter. They also contended that Superior Court Judge Philip Volland should not have allowed prosecutors to introduce evidence that Linehan admired the lead character in the "The Last Seduction."
The appeals court agreed on both points, adding that allowing the introduction of the "accusatory statements" in the letter required a reversal of the conviction.
"Leppink's accusation had no bearing on the jury's decision of the case - except for the improper inference that, if Leppink had an intimate relationship with Linehan, and if he feared her or suspected her of wanting to kill him, then there must have been some good reason for his fears or suspicions," the court wrote in it's 55-page decision."
In her appeal, Linehan also had argued that her past stint as an exotic dancer had no place at the trial.
The court, however, said that the evidence was admissible to explain the main actors in this case and that any potential error by the trial judge was harmless.
Linehan and her husband, Colin, were very pleased by the ruling and asked many questions about what happens next, said attorney Susan Orlansky.
Linehan will remain in custody until at least a bail hearing, said Jeff Feldman, another of Linehan's attorneys.
Then the state will be given time to decide how to proceed. Feldman believes the case against Linehan was significantly weakened by removing the Leppink letter and Last Seduction theory.
"The jury took a long time in deliberations even with that evidence," he said. "It would be reasonable to infer that without that evidence, it would be a very difficult case to prosecute."
It's extraordinarily unlikely the state would dismiss the case, Deputy Attorney General Rick Svobodny said. That leaves two other options - retrying the case or petitioning the Alaska Supreme Court for a review of the appellate court's decision.
"We will pick between one of the two after we've had time to review the ruling," Svobodny said.