Lankford trial has familiar tune

Mark Lankford looks on during opening statements in his third murder trial at the Canyon County Courthouse on Monday. Lankford is accused of the murders of Robert and Cheryl Bravence, who were killed while camping in rural Idaho County in 1983.

CALDWELL — Mark Lankford’s third time presenting his case to a jury Monday sounded like a repeated chorus.

The facts are the same. The witnesses are largely the same. The only difference is the venue, in Caldwell, to avoid jurors with knowledge of the nearly four-decade-old case.

Lankford has twice been convicted — and twice gotten those convictions overturned on successful appeals — of brutally beating to death an El Paso, Texas, couple in the Idaho County backcountry.

The 1983 murders will be presented to 14 Canyon County jurors, five men and nine women, who are tasked with determining if Lankford will be convicted a third time or if he will earn an acquittal. Lankford has always maintained his innocence, only copping to helping his brother, Bryan, dispose of the bodies of U.S. Marine Capt. Robert Bravence and his wife, Cheryl. The young couple’s remains were found weeks after they were killed, buried underneath logs near where Mark Lankford ditched his Chevrolet Camaro. Bryan Lankford over the decades has alternated from admitting to being the sole killer of the Bravences, to watching his brother bludgeon the couple, to not being anywhere near the killings. Evidence suggests the Bravences were killed in a failed robbery.

The case is being retried thanks to a successful appeal stemming from a 2008 trial. Idaho County Prosecutor Kirk MacGregor made a deal with a jailed witness for a release if the inmate testified against Lankford, saying in court that Lankford allegedly admitted to the murders. MacGregor did not inform defense counsel at the time of the full details of the deal and the Idaho Supreme Court overturned the conviction. The Canyon County Prosecutor’s Office was appointed and deputy prosecutor Tyler Powers gave the opening argument. Nez Perce County 2nd District Judge Jay Gaskill dismissed MacGregor from the case after determining the prosecutor could be called as a potential witness.

As the trial began Monday, Powers explained how the Bravences were on a camping trip as a summer vacation. The 26-year-old Cheryl and 27-year-old Robert had no idea their camp-out would end with their skulls smashed, van stolen and credit cards in the hands of the Lankfords, who proceeded to go on a spending spree after allegedly killing the couple. Powers displayed disturbing images to the jury of the victims’ skulls, shattered to pieces and then glued back together by a forensic pathologist to try to find out how they died. Some testimony has shown the couple were hit by a nightstick and other testimony has shown it was a rock from a fire ring.

Perhaps accustomed to every facet of his case after seeing it twice before, Lankford showed no visible reaction to the pictures. Lankford’s bald scalp showed nicks and red marks from a fresh shave. He appeared with a trim, gray goatee and dressed in a gray suit with a blue collared shirt and checkered blue tie. Lankford struck a relaxed pose on the first day of trial, often leaning far back in his chair with an arm over the bannister between the bar and the gallery.

Powers said the tranquil area on the South Fork of the Clearwater River was short-lived for the Bravences. They were killed by the Texas brothers, who arrived in the area because Mark Lankford was seeking to leave the “rat race” of working life. His brother was fleeing a probation violation that could have spelled prison time.

Powers outlined how a different set of campers saw the Lankford brothers prior to the murders and found them “grungy” and were scared of the two men — plus, Bryan Lankford was holding a shotgun. That group of campers packed up and left after the Lankfords moved on, fearing what the men were capable of, Powers said. The Bravences had no such warning, and were instead reportedly ambushed and ordered to the ground before being beaten to death.

“At 6:36 p.m. (June 21, 1983) the Bravences made a phone call to Robert’s mother, checking in like they always did on trips like this,” Powers said. “It would be the last time anyone in their family heard from them.”

The Bravences were reported missing after they failed to return from the camping trip that July. Their bodies wouldn’t be found until late September when a hunter discovered the remains. Then the investigation quickly turned to the Lankfords.

Mark Lankford’s car was found obscured by tree limbs and pine needles near the bodies. The brothers were tracked down to a small lean-to shack back in Texas after they traveled down the West Coast, maxing out the Bravences’ credit card. A knife with Robert Bravence’s name inscribed on the blade and a belt buckle also bearing Bravence’s name were found in the Lankfords’ camp in October 1983.

Statements from several deceased witness were read into the record and only three live witnesses testified during the first day of the jury trial. Robert Bravence’s brother, William “Andy” Bravence, said his brother was a strong, smart young man with a lot of promise. Robert Bravence was a teacher at Fort Bliss in El Paso, where he prepared Marines in missile defense systems. Andy Bravence said his brother was “a Marine, 100 percent.”

“High and tight, that was Rob,” Andy Bravence said. “He got all the brains and I got all the brawn. I was not the stellar student, he was.”

In order to prevent a mistrial, each witness has been admonished not to mention Mark Lankford’s 36 years in prison or the two previous trials, convictions or sentences. Attorneys were careful to avoid the word “trial” and the jurors have not been told about any of the previous trials. But with past testimony being read into the record, the context clues are pretty clear. And several times Monday, witnesses and attorneys let slip about prior trials. Each attorney carefully elided the references and continued on as if nothing was mentioned, which is what Gaskill suggested should be done.

In the defense’s opening argument, Lankford’s attorney, Sean Walsh, clearly pointed the blame at Bryan Lankford, who has also been convicted and repeatedly denied parole for the murders. Walsh explained Mark Lankford has always been clear he helped dispose of the bodies but did not participate in the murders. Walsh showed a photo of Bryan Lankford and said the crime painted him a villain, but his older brother didn’t see Bryan Lankford that way.

“Folks might see a monster, but that’s not how (Mark) Lankford saw him,” Walsh said. “(Mark) Lankford looked at him and saw his kid brother.”

While Bryan Lankford’s testimony has often changed, Walsh said when Lankford admitted to the murders, his attention to the details matched forensic evidence.

“You’ll hear plenty of lies from Bryan over the years,” Walsh said. “I don’t know what Bryan is going to tell you when he comes in. Will he take responsibility for what he’s done and what he has wrought to the Bravences, or not?”

The trial is scheduled to last three weeks. But the previous jury trials have concluded after around eight to 10 days, and Monday was finished ahead of schedule.

Holm may be contacted at (208) 848-2275 or tholm@lmtribune.com. Follow him on Twitter @TomHolm4.

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