An Idaho woman who spent more than 11 years in prison was released Friday after her life sentence was amended to time served, plus 5 years of supervised release.  The Idaho Innocence Project has represented Sarah Pearce since 2007.  She isn’t exonerated officially as her supporters hoped.

Her six felony guilty verdicts for a vicious attack on a passing motorist in 2000 still stand.  She was one of four people convicted.  Judge Juneal Kerrick, who in 2004 sentenced Pearce to 15 years to life, amended the sentence.  She added that Pearce could face an additional three years in prison if she violates her probation.  If Pearce’s sentence hadn’t been amended, she would have been eligible for parole starting in 2017.

Linda LeBrane, the victim of the attack, spoke about her life-altering trauma insisting that it was Pearce who masterminded the carjacking and urged the three other defendants to kill her.  Her assailants beat, robbed, and stabbed her.

“Sarah was the ringleader,” LeBrane said. “The past 14 years have been devastating for me…There’s been a dramatic loss of who I am or was…She kept screaming to the men…kill her…I begged her…for mercy…”

LeBrane is adamant that she remembers, despite Pearce’s claims of innocence, that she was among 4 people who commandeered her car on I-84, then took her to a remote area, where they attacked her with a metal bat and knife, set her car on fire and left her for dead.  She was able to roll away from the burning car and was rescued by passers-by who saw the engulfed car. The unprovoked attack of a lone motorist made the case high-profile for the state.

Along with Pearce, Jeremy Sanchez, and John and Ken Wurdemann were convicted.

Pearce claimed that, “This is a tragic misidentification…I did not commit this crime, but all the same I was punished for it.  The experience goes almost too deep for words.  I will try to walk away from this taking more from it than it has taken from me.”

Security was unusually high at the courtroom, Pearce was instructed not to speak to anyone in the gallery and all bags were checked and people wanded as they entered.  Pearce, now 31, was 19 when she was indicted on charges of aggravated battery, kidnapping, robbery, criminal conspiracy, and aiding and abetting attempted first-degree murder.  Prosecutors and defense attorneys reached a deal that arranged the amended sentence and did not require Pearce to profess guilt.

“The issue of innocence is not before the court,” Canyon County Deputy Prosecutor Mike Porter said.

“The issue is freedom,” said Boise State University professor Greg Hampikian of the Idaho Innocence Project.

“It’s the difference between justice and mercy,” LeBrane said. “The justice is that she was convicted and found guilty. The mercy is that Judge Kerrick is reconsidering her sentence.”  LeBrane told prosecutors after meeting with them that she was okay with the deal as long as she never saw Pearce again, “That’s my greatest fear [that she will come after me]. I know it’s not really rational.”  Prosecutors had said it was their mission not to agree to any settlement that minimized the crime or the community’s safety.

The Idaho Innocence Project was able to identify another woman it believes is the real perpetrator, along with the 3 men convicted.  She was initially a suspect, but investigators stopped pursuing her when she reportedly passed a lie detector test.  That result was called into question too late (after Pearce’s conviction), not to mention that lie detector tests are largely unreliable.

The female attacker was described as a short woman, Pearce is 5’ 6”.  The woman appeared to be the girlfriend of one of the men, but Pearce doesn’t date men.  The woman spoke Spanish.  Sarah Pearce, 17 at the time, didn’t speak Spanish.  The IIP hopes the prosecutors and investigators pursue the other suspect, but that seems unlikely.  A witness in the case said that they saw Pearce and the three other defendants at a motel near where the attack happened. However, the IIP found out that LeBrane’s stolen credit card was used in Oregon, 60 miles away just 30 minutes after the witness’ sighting.  Pearce couldn’t possibly have been at the motel and made it to Oregon in 30 minutes.

Hampikian said that like 70% of wrongful conviction cases, Pearce’s case hinged on “a bad ID” and “tunnel vision”.

“We think it was a case of mistaken identity pure and simple…”

The IIP suffered from loss of funding and is currently unable to take on new cases, but continued to pursue Sarah Pearce’s case as best they could.

“It’s remarkably time-intensive to unbake a cake,” Hampikian said, “It’s much better to get it right the first time.”

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