Third trial for Mark Lankford begins today

Mark Lankford turns away from a photo displayed during his sentencing hearing in 2nd District Court at Grangeville in 2008. He was sentenced then to two life terms without parole for the murder of Cheryl and Robert Bravence in 1983. The photo shows Cheryl Branvence’s family.

Is the third time the charm for Mark Lankford?

Depending on the perspective, Lankford’s third trial for the 1983 beating deaths of an El Paso, Texas, couple is a chance to finally secure a conviction or finally gain an acquittal of a man who has spent more than three decades behind bars. Lankford has won two appeals since his first conviction and is set to be retried a third time, starting today.

Lankford has twice been convicted for brutally beating to death U.S. Marine Capt. Robert Bravence and his wife, Cheryl, with a rock and dumping their bodies in the Idaho County backcountry. Juries in both Idaho and Shoshone counties found Lankford guilty of the double homicide, and now it will be up to a set of Canyon County jurors to decide Lankford’s fate during the scheduled three-week trial.

Lankford, originally of Texas, traveled to north central Idaho with his brother Bryan and allegedly tried to rob the Bravences while they were camping in the area. After the murders, the brothers reportedly stole the Bravences’ van and maxed out the deceased couple’s credit cards in a spending spree. About three months later, the Lankfords were found in Texas. Both were initially convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death. Mark Lankford won his first appeal on a technicality, successfully arguing that an error in jury instructions prevented his right to a fair trial. Bryan Lankford later had his sentence altered to life in prison and was denied parole in January.

Mark Lankford’s conviction was overturned, and he was tried and convicted a second time in 2008. But that conviction was appealed and overturned as well after it was discovered Idaho County Prosecutor Kirk MacGregor failed to disclose the details of a deal with an incarcerated witness to Lankford’s defense counsel.

MacGregor was later recused from trying the current case after it was determined he could be called as a witness. Canyon County Prosecutor Justin Paskett was assigned to try the case on his home turf. Lankford fired his first two attorneys, who agreed with withdrawing from the case and asked for a review under seal by a different judge to preserve attorney-client privilege. A separate judge decided Lankford had reached an impasse with his attorneys, and they were dismissed. Coeur d’Alene attorneys Sean Walsh and Monica Rector were then appointed and represent him now.

The trial could be tricky as attorneys will have to keep jurors apprised of the facts of the case but refrain from coloring jurors’ opinions of Lankford. In order to protect Lankford’s right to a fair trial, attorneys and witnesses must avoid mentioning Lankford’s two previous trials, convictions or at all refering to his time while incarcerated.

What’s different this time?

A new set of jurists.

Nez Perce County 2nd District Judge Jay Gaskill will hear the case and was chosen from many other judges who couldn’t oversee Lankford because of various conflicts, including Clearwater County District Judge Gregory FitzMaurice who was Lankford’s attorney in the 1984 trial. The case is being tried in Canyon County to avoid a jury pool that has heard news coverage of Lankford’s case over the years.

Lane Thomas, who testified in the 2008 trial that Lankford admitted to him while the two were incarcerated together that he killed the Bravences, will not be called as a witness. Thomas could not be located, and it has been reported in addition to being released from jail in exchange for testifying, he was paid $1,500 by the prosecution for “expenses arising from the trial.”

What’s the same?

The facts: Two people were killed, with Mark and Bryan Lankford as the only suspects.

About 18 witnesses could not be found or are deceased. So transcripts of testimony from previous trials are set to be read into the record in front of the jury.

While the same evidence and much of the same testimony will be presented to jurors, the trial could differ from previous ones as attorneys balance preventing a mistrial and giving as much context as possible for the crime. And witnesses will have to reach back 36 years to recall one day in the summer of 1983 or remember a conversation or hearing during the now numerous trials.

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

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