CALDWELL — Mark Lankford was expressionless when he learned Friday for a third time a jury has found him guilty of first-degree murder.
Seven women and five men deliberated Friday for about three hours before returning guilty verdicts on two counts of murder. No sentencing date has been set.
Lankford has tried and failed three times to prove himself innocent of killing an El Paso, Texas, couple who were camping in the Idaho County backcountry. Each jury, spanning almost four decades, has found Lankford unequivocally guilty — though his attorney, Sean Walsh, said after the verdict was read he “imagines there will be” another appeal.
Lankford had twice overturned first-degree murder convictions on appeal and earned a third trial. A Canyon County jury took the case at about 3:30 p.m. Mountain time to deliberate following 10 days of testimony. The trial was held in Caldwell to avoid a biased jury, and the second retrial stems from an appeal over a since-recused prosecutor who failed to inform Lankford’s previous defense about the full details of a deal to be lenient on an incarcerated witness. Lankford’s first successful appeal came about from a technicality in jury instruction.
Several members of the Bravence family shed tears as the verdict was read and embraced one another. The family members left the courtroom without making a statement.
Lankford is once again guilty of brutally beating to death U.S. Marine Capt. Robert Bravence and his wife, Cheryl, while they were on a camping trip along the South Fork of the Clearwater River in June 1983.
In this latest trial, Mark Lankford’s younger brother, Bryan, took the stand and took responsibility as the sole killer of the Bravences in a botched robbery. Bryan Lankford is serving a life term for the murders and has given varying accounts over the years about the killings, including denying being there, blaming his brother for the slayings and taking credit as the sole killer.
Despite Bryan Lankford’s courtroom confession, the jury still returned guilty verdicts on Mark Lankford.
During closing arguments, Canyon County Deputy Prosecutor Doug Robertson said Mark Lankford fabricated much of his motivations and created a timeline and story that kept him away from the scene when the murders occurred. Lankford claimed he got into a spat with his brother and separated, hitchhiking a short way before getting out and walking back only to see his brother drive up in a stolen van.
Robertson said Lankford drove into the Idaho wilderness and ran out of gas and food and became desperate. His brother went with him and wanted to flee Texas. Bryan Lankford reportedly wanted to avoid prison time on a parole violation for a robbery conviction. Mark Lankford has claimed he left his home and job as an accountant for an oil firm in Texas to “find himself.”
“Mark needs you to believe that he’s just fine, that he’s up there on a spiritual journey,” Robertson said. “Because if he’s just fine then he has no reason to rob and murder the Bravences.”
The Lankfords walked from their campsite, after covering Mark Lankford’s vehicle in brush, and hitched a ride saying they wanted to go to a picnic area down the road. Robertson said the only reason the Lankfords would have to go to that area is to rob people. Lankford has previously testified the driver who gave him a ride misheard him and that he stopped at the picnic area to use the restroom. Several people there saw the Lankford brothers, one holding a shotgun, and it appeared they were “casing” their vehicles. The picnickers became leery of the two men and packed up and left.
“If Mark Lankford is out for a car, why doesn’t he take (one from the driver who gave him a ride)? It has local plates,” Robertson said. “Mark Lankford may be a murderer, but he is not an idiot.”
Bryan Lankford testified at the trial and repeatedly claimed responsibility for killing the Bravences, saying he hit them both with the butt of a shotgun and then killed them with a rock. Both victims had defensive wounds, as well as smaller fractures to different areas of their skulls that didn’t precisely match with Bryan Lankford’s description of the attack.
“Why would he come into a courtroom and possibly admit to that?” Robertson said. “And why did he get it so wrong?”
The Lankford brothers went on a spending spree with the Bravences’ credit card and traveled down the West Coast before they maxed out the credit line and ditched the Bravences’ van in Los Angeles. The brothers were found in a makeshift camp and shoddy lean-to in Texas after investigators tracked them there upon finding the Bravences’ decomposing bodies very near where Mark Lankford ditched his car. At the brothers’ simple camp, investigators found personal items belonging to the Bravences, including a U.S. Marine Corps belt buckle and military-style green hat with the Bravence name written inside. Robertson argued Lankford kept the items as tokens from the killings.
“The only choice is to come back and tell that man that you see him for exactly what he is; that he’s a murderer twice over,” Robertson said.
Lankford’s attorney, Sean Walsh, said Bryan Lankford is the only one guilty of murdering the Bravences. Mark Lankford has admitted to helping dispose of the bodies to help shelter his brother, but Bryan Lankford did the killing without his brother present.
Walsh painted Bryan Lankford as a remorseless killer, a “psychopath” who came in to testify bound in chains and looking like “Hannibal Lecter.” Walsh avoided mentioning previous trials against Mark Lankford but did tell the jury that Bryan Lankford was offered a deal for early parole and was given a cellphone in jail by the Idaho County Prosecutor’s Office during the 2008 trial if he testified against his brother. It was not disputed that Bryan Lankford was given a cellphone in the jail. For that reason, Walsh said jurors could not trust Bryan Lankford’s previous testimony laying the blame for the murders solely on his brother.
“The Idaho County prosecuting attorney’s office bought that testimony,” Walsh said. “They gave him a cellphone in the jail — that’s insane.”
Walsh did agree, however, that much of what Bryan Lankford has said and testified to were lies. But an independent witness did reportedly see only one person at the campsite the night of the murders. A camper driving in the area late that night reported seeing one male figure at the Bravence camp around the time of the killings.
Walsh told the jury that the only choice was acquittal.
“You don’t need to feel like a murderer is getting away,” Walsh said. “The man who murdered the Bravences is never getting out.”
Holm may be contacted at (208) 848-2275 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @TomHolm4.