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Linehan v. State

Court of Appeals of Alaska

February 5, 2010

Mechele K. LINEHAN, Appellant,
v.
STATE of Alaska, Appellee.

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Susan Orlansky, Jeffrey M. Feldman, and Alexander O. Bryner of Feldman Orlansky & Sanders, Anchorage, for the Appellant.

Diane L. Wendlandt, Assistant Attorney General, Office of Special Prosecutions and Appeals, Anchorage, and Richard A. Svobodny, Acting Attorney General, Juneau, for the Appellee.

Before: COATS, Chief Judge, and MANNHEIMER and BOLGER, Judges.

OPINION

MANNHEIMER, Judge.

Mechele K. Linehan appeals her conviction for first-degree murder. She challenges three evidentiary rulings made by the trial judge.

First, Linehan argues that the trial court improperly allowed the State to introduce evidence of a letter written by the victim of the homicide shortly before he was killed. In this letter, the victim asserted that if he died under suspicious circumstances, Linehan would probably be responsible for his death.

Second, Linehan contends that the trial court improperly allowed the State to introduce evidence that Linehan expressed admiration for, and a desire to emulate, the evil and manipulative female protagonist of the movie " The Last Seduction" .

Third, Linehan argues that the trial court improperly allowed the State to introduce evidence that, during a portion of the time period involved in this case, Linehan made her living as an " exotic dancer" -that is, as a stripper.

For the reasons explained in this opinion, we conclude that it was error to allow the State to introduce evidence concerning the accusatory statements in the victim's letter-and we further conclude that this error requires reversal of Linehan's conviction.

In addition, to clarify matters for any retrial, we conclude that it was error to allow the State to introduce evidence of Linehan's statements about " The Last Seduction".

Finally, with regard to the evidence that Linehan worked as an exotic dancer, we conclude that this evidence was admissible to explain the relationship of the main actors in this case, and we further conclude that any potential error in the trial judge's ruling on this issue was harmless.

Underlying facts

Between mid-1994 and mid-1996 Mechele Linehan (whose name was then Mechele Hughes) maintained romantic relationships with several men, three of whom are important to this case: Scott Hilke, John Carlin, and Kent Leppink. Linehan's romantic relationships with these three men were essentially simultaneous, and all three men were aware (to a greater or lesser extent) of the nature of the others' relations with Linehan. Indeed, for several months, Linehan, Carlin, and Leppink all lived in the same house in Anchorage. (Hilke lived in California.)

On the morning of May 2, 1996, Leppink was found shot to death outside of the small town of Hope (about 90 miles by road from Anchorage). According to the pathologist's investigation, Leppink was killed sometime between 6 hours and 48 hours before his body was discovered-that is, sometime between mid-day on April 30th and the early morning hours of May 2nd.

When the Alaska State Troopers investigated this homicide, they interviewed Linehan, Carlin, and Hilke. However, the troopers were not able to identify any culprits, and the case remained unsolved for several years. In 2004, the state trooper " Cold Case Unit" re-opened the investigation. Based on a review of the earlier investigation, plus new witness interviews and a forensic examination of the e-mails and other materials recovered from two computers, the troopers concluded that Carlin had lured Leppink to Hope and had shot him there.

The troopers further concluded that Linehan was Carlin's accomplice-not that she physically assisted Carlin during the shooting, but rather that she solicited Carlin to commit this murder, and that she also helped Carlin compose a note that would be left for Leppink to find, and that would make Leppink want to go to Hope (by falsely making

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him think that Linehan was staying there in a cabin with another man).

In March and April 2007, the State successfully prosecuted Carlin for this murder.[1] Following Carlin's conviction, the State brought Linehan to trial. Linehan's trial took place in the Anchorage superior court over the course of six weeks in September and October 2007.

The State's case was lengthy and detailed, but it was primarily circumstantial. In an effort to convince the jury to view the circumstantial evidence in a light that would support Linehan's conviction for murder, the State offered two pieces of evidence that had no direct relevance to the events being litigated, but which strongly suggested that Linehan was the kind of person who would conspire to have Leppink murdered.

The first of these pieces of evidence was a letter that Leppink sent to his parents on April 30th, shortly before his death. This letter was sealed inside another package, and Leppink instructed his parents to open the letter only in the event that he died under suspicious circumstances.

In this letter, Leppink told his parents that if he was found dead, Mechele Hughes ( i.e., Mechele Linehan), John Carlin, and/or Scott Hilke would probably be the ones responsible. Leppink told his parents that Linehan had a " split personality", and that " the part [he] fell in love with is very beautiful", but Leppink also admonished his parents " to take Mechele down", to " [m]ake sure she is prosecuted", and to " [m]ake sure they [ i.e., Linehan, Carlin, and/or Hilke] get burned" .

The second piece of evidence was the testimony offered by Lora Aspiotis, who was Linehan's co-worker and friend until they had a falling out at the end of February 1996. According to Aspiotis, she and Linehan would often watch movies together, and one of these movies was " The Last Seduction" .

In her testimony, Aspiotis described the plot of this movie as follows:

[The story is about] a woman who's married to a doctor, and she ... talked him into doing [an illegal] drug deal, selling pharmaceutical cocaine, and he got $700,000.... [Later,] while he was in the shower, she stole the money, [and she] took off and went to a small town where a young man lived that she met at a bar. And she could tell right away that he was very naive, ... just [a] pretty innocent guy. And eventually she talked him into trying to murder her husband for the insurance.... [In the movie, the innocent young man] ended up in prison, and she went free with all the money.

According to Aspiotis, after she and Linehan watched this movie, Linehan told her that the protagonist " was her heroine", and that " she wanted to be ... just like her" .

Why we conclude that it was error for the superior court to let the State introduce the accusatory statements contained in Leppink's letter to his parents

We turn first to the question of whether the State should have been allowed to introduce the portions of Leppink's letter to his parents in which Leppink asserted that Linehan had a " split personality", and that if he died under suspicious circumstances, Linehan, Carlin, and/or Hilke would probably be the ones responsible.

Under Alaska Evidence Rule 803(3), hearsay evidence may be introduced concerning a person's assertion about their own current state of mind ( i.e., their state of mind at the time they made the assertion). In other words, evidence of such an assertion is admissible

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as proof of the matter asserted- i.e., proof that the other person really did have that self-declared state of mind at the time they made the out-of-court assertion.

Sometimes, a person's state of mind will be an element of the claim being litigated-for example, a defendant's intent or knowledge, or a victim's apprehension of danger. In such cases, statements reflecting the pertinent aspect of the person's state of mind will be direct proof of a matter being litigated.

Generally, however, when hearsay evidence of a person's state of mind is relevant, that relevance will rest upon an inference about the person's related conduct. In some instances, evidence of the person's state of mind will be relevant because it tends to prove or disprove some assertion about the person's ensuing actions (or the person's failure to act). In other instances, evidence of the person's state of mind will be relevant because it tends to explain the nature of the person's actions-in the sense that the evidence tends to prove or disprove some assertion about the intent or knowledge with which the person acted.

Even though Evidence Rule 803(3) authorizes hearsay evidence of a person's statements concerning their own then-existing state of mind, the rule expressly declares that hearsay testimony concerning a person's beliefs is not admissible if it is offered to prove the truth of those beliefs. Such hearsay testimony is admissible only if it does not matter whether the person's belief was true or false-when the important point is the fact that the person held this belief (generally, again, because the fact that the person held the belief is relevant to proving or explaining their actions).

This second principle-that hearsay evidence of a person's belief is not admissible to prove the truth of that belief-is especially important in homicide prosecutions where there is evidence that the victim expressed apprehension that the defendant might do them harm.

As our supreme court stated in Wyatt v. State, 981 P.2d 109, 113 (Alaska 1999), " [e]vidence of a murder victim's fear of the accused is inadmissible if its only relevance is as circumstantial evidence of the accused's conduct" . (Emphasis added) That is, the evidence is not admissible " if its probative value depends on the impermissible inference that, because the victim feared the accused, the accused likely did something [in the past] or planned to do something [in the future] to justify the fear." [2]

Evidence of the victim's statements expressing fear of the defendant, or expressing the belief that the defendant would harm them, is not admissible unless the State demonstrates that this evidence " is directly relevant to some [other] genuinely disputed issue" . Wyatt, 981 P.2d at 113.[3] Normally, this means that the State must show that the fact that the victim held this belief (whether the belief was well-founded or not) is directly relevant to prove or explain the victim's actions (or failure to take action). In addition, the State must show that there is a genuine dispute between the parties concerning the aspect of the victim's conduct to which this belief pertains.

Thus, in Wyatt, a case in which the defendant was prosecuted for murdering his wife, the State's theory of the case hinged on the premise that Wyatt's wife was about to divorce him-and that, in response, Wyatt killed her because he feared losing control over his wife and over her money.

At trial, the State introduced evidence that the wife had expressed a fear of death at the defendant's hand if she pressed forward with her plans for a divorce. Id. at 111. The supreme court held that, even though this evidence tended to suggest that Wyatt's past actions provided good reason for his wife to fear him, or that Wyatt's subsequent actions conformed to his wife's fear (both improper purposes), the evidence was nevertheless admissible for a separate, proper purpose: it was relevant to prove the victim's subsequent conduct: " [The victim's] fearfulness of

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[Wyatt's] reaction served as a tangible measure both of how serious she was about obtaining a divorce[,] and of the likely imminence of her action." Id. at 114.

The supreme court further concluded that this evidence was directly relevant to a genuinely disputed fact-because, at trial, Wyatt actively disputed that his wife was serious about divorcing him. Id. Thus, the evidence met the test for admissibility.

Similarly, in Linton v. State, 880 P.2d 123 (Alaska App.1994), another case where a defendant was prosecuted for murdering his wife, this Court upheld the admission of evidence that the wife had told friends that she was afraid that Linton might do her harm, or that he might cause her to be deported to her home country-but she refused to leave him because she would not leave her children behind. Id. at 130.

We concluded that these out-of-court statements were admissible because they were directly relevant to a genuinely disputed issue " other than the happening of the event[s] which produced the [victim's] state of mind" . Id.

As we explained in our opinion, after Linton's wife disappeared, " Linton made a number of conflicting statements indicating that [his wife] had left him for another man[,] or that she had returned home to Germany." Id. at 131. At trial, the State attempted to show that Linton's explanations were false-by proving that Linton's deceased wife would never have considered leaving without her two children. Id. The State's theory of the case was that Linton's wife's refusal to leave was the thing that motivated him to kill her-because their marriage was deteriorating and Linton wanted his wife to go home to Germany, leaving him with sole custody of their children. Id.

Given this evidentiary backdrop, we concluded that the challenged evidence of the wife's state of mind was relevant to prove her ensuing conduct, and Linton's reaction to that conduct:

[I]t [is] apparent that the state did not offer the testimony concerning [Linton's wife's] fear of Linton to prove that Linton had in fact previously harmed her or to support the impermissible subsidiary inference that Linton's past acts of harm toward [his wife] made it more likely that he was her killer. Rather, the state offered this evidence to suggest a plausible motive for Linton's commission of the alleged [homicide]: that Linton resorted to murder when his attempts to talk [his wife] into leaving and his attempts to drive her away ... failed. For this purpose, the disputed evidence was admissible under [Evidence Rule] 803(3).

Linton, 880 P.2d at 131.

In other words, in Linton as in Wyatt, (1) the victim's state of mind was relevant to prove the victim's own ensuing conduct, and (2) the nature of the victim's ensuing conduct was actively disputed at trial.

With this discussion as a preface, we turn now to the evidence that is challenged in Linehan's case: the statements contained in the letter that Kent Leppink sent to his parents shortly before his death.

For purposes of this appeal, Leppink's letter contained two major accusatory assertions. The first of these assertions was Leppink's statement that, if he died under suspicious circumstances, Linehan, Carlin, and/or Hilke would be the ones responsible for his death. The second assertion was Leppink's statement that Linehan had a " split personality", and that one part of her personality-" the part [he] fell in love with" -was " very beautiful" . The clear implication of this second assertion was that Leppink believed that Linehan also had a darker, murderous side to her nature. Indeed, while Leppink professed his continuing love for Linehan, he urged his parents to do everything in their power to " take Mechele down" .

Despite the fact that these two assertions are contained in the same letter, the admissibility of each assertion was litigated at a separate time during the trial.

(a) The admissibility of Leppink's assertion that, if he died under suspicious circumstances, the guilty parties were probably Linehan, Carlin, and/or Hilke

The admissibility of the first accusatory assertion in the letter-Leppink's statement

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that, if he died under suspicious circumstances, Linehan, Carlin, and/or Hilke would be the guilty parties-was litigated at a pre-trial hearing shortly before the trial, and the trial judge announced his final ruling on this issue just before the parties delivered their opening statements to the jury.

During the parties' arguments on this issue, the prosecutor conceded that Leppink's statement could not be admitted to prove that Linehan probably had a hand in Leppink's death. Nevertheless, the prosecutor argued that, as was true in Wyatt and Linton, Leppink's statements about his own beliefs and fears were relevant to prove his ensuing conduct, or the reasons for his ensuing conduct.

Specifically, the prosecutor told the trial judge:

Prosecutor: [Leppink's fear that Linehan and Carlin might kill him] ... tells us something about what's going [in Mr. Leppink's] mind with respect to these other people.... We have a man that is so obsessed, so adamant, so persistent about his relationship with [Linehan], and ... making [that relationship] work, that even though [Mr. Leppink] believes [that] it's very dangerous to him, he's [still] going to pursue it.[[4]]

Linehan's attorney argued that the accusatory statement in Leppink's letter should not be admitted, even if that statement might reveal something about Leppink's mental state, because Leppink's mental state was not going to be contested at trial-and thus the accusatory statement did not tend to prove, or refute, any dispute concerning Leppink's mental state or ensuing conduct.

The defense attorney explicitly told the trial judge that " no one is disputing [Leppink's] state of mind", and that the defense did not intend to " raise[ ] any challenge to [Leppink's] relevant mental state-[no challenge to the fact that], at the time that he went to Hope, he was in love with her, confused, wanted her back." In particular, the defense attorney stated that Linehan would not dispute that Leppink " was confused, and was looking for her in Hope", nor would Linehan dispute that " there were problems in their relationship at the time ..., [and] Leppink [believed] that they were engaged, [and] then he couldn't find her, and [he believed that] she was off with somebody else-and, as not atypical in [situations] of either jealousy or [doubt], he went and looked for her."

After hearing these arguments, the trial judge ruled that the State would be allowed to introduce Leppink's accusatory statement from the letter. The underlying problem with the trial judge's ruling on this issue is that the judge focused exclusively on the fact that Leppink's out-of-court accusatory statement was probative of his mental state, and the judge neglected to address the other aspects of the Wyatt - Linton test-whether the statement tended to prove anything about Leppink's mental state or his related conduct that would actually be disputed at trial.

In his preliminary ruling on this issue, the trial judge declared that Leppink's letter (including the accusation that Linehan and Carlin would be responsible for his death) " [was] a clear reflection of [Leppink's] emotional state at the time [he wrote the letter]" . The judge pointed out that Leppink's statements in the letter tended to show that he was " torn between ... believing [that Linehan and Carlin] may be out to get him, and at the

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same time still wanting to reconcile with Ms. Linehan." The judge concluded that Leppink's statements in the letter were relevant because " his emotional state at the time ... explains, or at least in part explains, or helps the jury understand, why he's maybe going to Hope-trying to find out things in Hope. Why, maybe, he's lured there by Mr. Carlin."

One week later (just before the parties' opening statements), the trial judge revisited this question and issued his final ruling. In this final ruling, the judge confirmed his earlier conclusion that Leppink's out-of-court statement was admissible:

The Court: [A] central question in this case ... is the [susceptibility] of Mr. Leppink to be lured or manipulated because of his feelings about Ms. Linehan.... It's something that goes directly to both Mr. Leppink's actions [and] the defendant's actions in this case. And that [vulnerability] to be lured or manipulated ... can only be understood ... in the context of the letter he writes to his parents.... [I]n the letter[, not only] does he express an unrequited love for Ms. Linehan, [but] he also expresses this belief that Ms. Linehan is one of the people who might do him harm.... And that reflects a depth of ... commitment to Ms. Linehan, and I think makes it understandable how he can be manipulated to put himself in a vulnerable position, or to be lured to Hope, as the State argued in [Mr. Carlin's] trial.
... I am persuaded by [the fact that] in Wyatt ... the court held that evidence of [Mrs. Wyatt's] determination to divorce [her husband, the defendant], despite [her] fear of a lethal situation, demonstrated the seriousness of her purpose and intent, and, therefore, was probative of her state of mind and plan for future action. You substitute a few words here, and we have the same situation [in this case]. Evidence of Mr. Leppink's determination to pursue and stay in a relationship with Ms. Linehan, despite ... the fear of a lethal situation coming from her, demonstrates the seriousness of his purpose and intent, and is, therefore, probative of his state of mind and plan for future action.

In other words, the trial judge concluded that Leppink's statement asserting his belief that Linehan and Carlin might try to kill him was relevant because (1) the fact that Leppink would put aside this fear demonstrated the depth of his infatuation with Linehan, and (2) the depth of Leppink's infatuation with Linehan-" the seriousness of his purpose and intent" -was " probative of his plan for future action" and helped to explain " how he [could] be manipulated to put himself in a vulnerable position, or to be lured to Hope" .

As we noted earlier, the problem with the trial judge's analysis is that, under Wyatt and Linton, the fact that Leppink's out-of-court statement revealed something about his emotional state, or revealed his conflicted feelings about Linehan, is not sufficient, by itself, to justify the admission of Leppink's accusatory statement. Our law requires the proponent of this type of evidence to show that the particular state of mind revealed by the victim's out-of-court statement is relevant to a disputed issue in the case.

In particular, under Wyatt and Linton, the proponent of the evidence must show that the victim's state of mind tends to prove that the victim engaged (or did not engage) in specific conduct that will be disputed at trial, or that the victim's state of mind tends to prove that the victim performed this conduct with a particular intent, motive, or knowledge that will be disputed at trial.

When the parties argued this issue, the defense attorney affirmatively declared that the defense would not be disputing any aspect of Leppink's mental state or conduct that the State was trying to prove with the accusatory out-of-court statement. Under Wyatt and Linton, after the defense attorney declared that the challenged evidence was not relevant to any disputed issue, the judge had to resolve this question before the judge could decide whether the evidence was admissible.

If the judge believed that the defense attorney was wrong-that is, if the judge could already identify a disputed issue to which the challenged evidence was relevant-the judge could point out this disputed issue. Alternatively, the judge might not know enough about the case ( i.e., enough about how the

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parties intended to litigate the case) to be able to identify which factual issues would be disputed. In that event, the judge could ask the prosecutor to expressly identify the victim's actions or mental states that the State intended to prove with the out-of-court statement, and then the defense attorney either could concede that these actions or mental states would be disputed, or expressly confirm that they would not be disputed. And, of course, another possibility is that the judge might agree with the defense attorney that the challenged evidence was not relevant to any disputed issue-in which case the judge would exclude the evidence.

But in Linehan's case, the trial judge did none of these things. Even though the defense attorney expressly argued that the proposed evidence was not relevant to any disputed issue, the trial judge failed to resolve this question.

This error might have turned out to be insignificant if the trial evidence had, in fact, revealed a genuine dispute about Leppink's feelings toward Linehan, or about Leppink's ensuing actions. But the opposite is the case.

As we explained above, a victim's mental state is sometimes relevant because that mental state is an element of the State's proof-but that was not the case here. A charge of first-degree murder does not require proof that the victim had any particular mental state. Thus, if Leppink's mental state had relevance, that relevance had to lie in the fact that Leppink's mental state was circumstantial evidence tending to prove or disprove his ensuing actions, or tending to explain the nature of his actions ( i.e., the intent, motive, or knowledge with which he engaged in those actions).

When the trial judge explained why he concluded that the State should be allowed to introduce the accusatory statement in Leppink's letter, the core of that ruling (which we quoted more fully earlier) was the trial judge's conclusion that, if Leppink was willing to continue his relationship with Linehan despite his fear that Linehan and Carlin might kill him, this demonstrated " a depth of ... commitment to Ms. Linehan [that] makes it understandable how he [could] be manipulated to put himself in a vulnerable position, or to be lured to Hope, as the State argue[s]" .

The fact that Leppink was infatuated or even obsessed with Linehan was obviously relevant to explain why he would go to Hope looking for her, and why he might risk taking Carlin along with him on his second trip to Hope. But there was no dispute that Leppink engaged in these actions-no dispute that Leppink was lured to Hope, or that he was manipulated into asking Carlin to accompany him to Hope on his second trip, thus putting himself in a " vulnerable position" that allowed Carlin to murder him.

In particular, there was no dispute that Leppink went to Hope on two occasions shortly before his death-the first time, on the weekend of April 27th-28th, and the second time, on April 30th or May 1st. There was no dispute that, on both occasions, Leppink was looking for Linehan, and that his motivation for doing so was jealousy, frustration, and doubt about their relationship. And there was no dispute that, on the second occasion, Leppink allowed Carlin to ...


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