Richard Earl Burkhart, a Great Falls man who has spent the last 15 years in prison, will soon be free.
In September 2002, Burkhart was convicted of deliberate homicide for the November 2001 death of William LeDeau, and sentenced to life in the Montana State Prison.
Last year, District Court Judge John Kutzman vacated the conviction and ordered a new trial after the Montana Innocence Project discovered evidence that another suspect in the case had confessed to the crime.
During the state's investigation, the main witness, Michael Staley, recanted his testimony and admitted that he lied to mislead police and a jury.
The state determined that it lacks sufficient evidence to prove a case against Burkhart, and the case was dismissed last week.
Larry Mansch, legal director of the Montana Innocence Project, told MTN News: "Those are years he will never be able to get back. I think he was 19 or so when he went to prison, and now he is in his 30's. He lost a lot of prime years of his life. We have a program at the Innocence Project to acclimate former inmates into the world, by trying to get them connected with goods and services that can help them. We will certainly give Richard all the help we can."
Mansch says Burkhart is very happy about the case being dismissed.
(NOVEMBER 28, 2016) District Court Judge John Kutzman last week vacated the homicide conviction of Richard Earl Burkhart and ordered a new trial.
In September 2002, Burkhart was convicted of deliberate homicide for the November 2001 death in Great Falls of William LeDeau, and sentenced to 100 years in the Montana State Prison.
In 2015 the Montana Innocence Project discovered evidence of Burkhart’s innocence, including the fact that the confession of another suspect in the crime had not been disclosed to the defense attorneys.
The Montana Innocence Project moved to vacate the conviction, and Judge Kutzman agreed.
“The Court concludes,” wrote Kutzman, “the undisclosed evidence would, if timely disclosed, have entitled Mr. Burkhart to a new trial in 2002 and that there is a reasonable probability the outcome of that new trial would have been an acquittal if the jury heard that evidence. The law accordingly requires the Court to grant Mr. Burkhart’s motion for a new trial.”
Larry Mansch, legal director of the Montana Innocence Project, said, “We are very pleased with the court’s order dismissing the judgment against Richard. He has spent 14 years in prison for a crime he did not commit. If the State decides to retry the case, we are very confident we can prove Richard’s innocence.”
Montana Innocence Project president Dan Weinberg said, “Our organization is dedicated to freeing wrongfully convicted individuals like Richard. With the court’s order, Richard has taken a giant step forward in his path to freedom. We are determined to do our best to help Richard, and others who are wrongfully convicted.”
While in prison, Burkhart has been convicted on felony charges of riot, and accountability for criminal mischief.
On November 13, 2001, the body of William Ledeau was found at 12th Street and 1 Alley North in Great Falls, Cascade County. He had been struck in the head four times with a blunt object. The State initially charged Burkhart on December 10, 2001, with deliberate homicide by accountability. The State later amended the information on September 4, 2002, to include deliberate homicide, felony-murder, pursuant to § 45-5-102(1)(b), MCA. Burkhart was found guilty as charged by a jury on September 19, 2002, and sentenced to life imprisonment on October 24, 2002.