ANCHORAGE - During two murder trials in Alaska, most of the focus was on a beautiful ex-stripper with a reputation for charming men into giving her their hearts as well as furs, jewelry and money.
But when it came time to sentence Mechele Linehan, attention turned instead to the man she helped kill in 1996, a gangly, socially awkward commercial fisherman whose body was found sprawled on a trail outside a mining community south of Anchorage.
Kent Leppink, 36, the son of a grocer in Shelby, Mich., was executed by a man he trusted through the manipulations of a woman he had hoped to marry, said Anchorage Superior Court Judge Philip Volland.
The heinous nature of the crime outweighed the promising life Linehan had built in the decade after the murder.
"This premeditated murder in my mind stands alone with some unique characteristics that elevate its seriousness and its moral approbation," Volland said.
On Wednesday, he sentenced the 35-year-old Linehan to 99 years in prison, with no chance for release until 33 have been served.
The sentence matched the one Volland gave to the shooter, John Carlin III, someone Leppink considered a friend but another man who hoped to marry Linehan, who was 23 when Leppink died.
Evidence indicated Linehan and Carlin fabricated a note that led Leppink to believe she was staying in a cabin near Hope, about 70 road miles south of Anchorage. Investigators say Carlin shot Leppink in the back as they walked up a utility trail, then twice more in the abdomen and head.
According to prosecutors, the motive was a $1 million insurance policy that Linehan mistakenly believed named her as beneficiary. Instead, a few days before he died, Leppink made his parents the beneficiaries and wrote them a sealed letter naming Linehan and Carlin as suspects if he died suspiciously.
A cold case team re-interviewed witnesses and used new technology to recover deleted e-mails. Carlin, who had moved to Elmer, N.J., and Linehan were charged in 2006.
Linehan had left Alaska, earned two college degrees, married a doctor, had a child, and settled in Olympia, Wash., when she was arrested. Friends and family sent Volland dozens of letters rejecting her guilty verdict.
Defense attorney Kevin Fitzgerald on Wednesday spoke for an hour on her behalf and questioned the fairness of the trial, starting with pretrial publicity that highlighted her former profession.
"I can't help but believe that the media frenzy that attended the lead-up to this case created such a toxic environment that Mrs. Linehan was unlikely to get a fair trial," he said.
The verdict, he said, was shocking. He unsuccessfully tried to call an alternate juror who said she would not have convicted Linehan.
Fitzgerald also pushed for a minimum sentence, or even sending the matter to a three-judge panel to consider a reduction from the 20-year minimum.
Linehan denied she was the monster manufactured by the prosecution, but instead a wife and mother of "a bright-eyed little girl who is and always will be the brightest star in my life."
She worked as a stripper to pay for her college education, she said, and never asked that anyone be hurt when she lived in Alaska.
"The last decade should speak volumes about my character to you," she said.
Prosecutor Pat Gullufsen said evidence showed that Linehan's involvement in Leppink's death was more than minimal. Her e-mails to Leppink and his parents professed a desire to marry him. At the same time, she was sneering at the notion in a message to her own mother.
"That e-mail is telling and horrific," Gullufsen said. "She has so little feeling for the man and the situation she has created. It's just, to her, a big joke."
As for leniency, Gullufsen ticked off past cases in which the Alaska appellate courts had ruled that premeditated, solicited murder was harshly judged.
"Those who participate in the murder are the worst of the worst," Gullufsen said.
He asked Volland to hand down the maximum sentence, and Volland did, methodically rejecting Linehan's bid for leniency.
"I don't have that lingering doubt about the jury's verdict," he said. "I heard the evidence as it was presented. I do not believe that coverage in this case improperly affected the jury's verdict.
Similar cases, he said, cut defendants no mercy for the lack of a criminal record or for being youthful.
He was bound by the law to treat her as an offender convicted of first-degree murder, not merely solicitation.
He dismissed Linehan's promising behavior in the decade after the murder. Reading the letters of support made him think of Leppink.
"It echoed to me in a reverse kind of way the life Kent Leppink never had and that he lost," Volland said.
Linehan only had that opportunity, he said, because she temporarily got away with murder.
The support letters and the evidence suggest two Mechele Linehans, one seductive and manipulative, the other supportive, caring and charming.
"She used the same charm to a criminal design," he said.
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