Cost of Wrongful Incarceration
$503,670 (in 2015 dollars)
For Richard Burkhart, the phrase “being in the wrong place at the wrong time” rings true. While false testimony and official misconduct were the ultimate causes of his wrongful conviction, it all started when his car got broken into down the street from a murder.
Burkhart Becomes a Suspect
On November 13, 2001, 22-year-old Burkhart and 25-year-old Michael Staley saw two teenagers breaking into their car. When they caught up to them, one threw down his cap and tried to engage Burkhart and Staley in a fight. They refused to fight and walked away.
Nearby, at the intersection of 12th Street and 1 Alley North in Great Falls, Montana, police were responding to the discovery of 21-year-old William Ledeau’s body in an alley. It was later revealed that his death was caused by being struck in the head four times with a blunt object.
Burkhart and Staley saw the commotion down the street. They approached the officers at the murder scene about their car being broken into and told them about the teenager taking his cap off and attempting to start a fight. The officers had found a cap next to Ledeau’s body and asked Burkhart and Staley if they recognized it. They confirmed it was the same cap that the teenager threw on the ground. This confirmation made Burkhart and Staley suspects in the murder because the cap belonged to Ledeau. They were taken in for questioning, but they figured it was to give a witness statement about the teenager. It never crossed his mind that he was now a suspect in the murder.
Richard Burkhart on learning he was a suspect:
“When they hadn’t come to my car and nobody had come around and we were all just standing right there at my car, Staley was like ‘well, what the f*** is going on down there.’ I was like ‘well I don’t know lets go down,’ so we walked down the street to see what was going on, it wasn’t just to to report my car, it was to see what the hell – because of our curiosity. And so when we had gotten down there, at the bottom of the alleyway, there was you know, the victim of course, and they were giving him CPR and trying to revive him and get him on the stetcher and stuff like that. And it dawned on us both at that moment, that the guy that we just saw, probably just did this. That was what our immediate reaction was, you know, and then from there Staley had called the officer over and I was trying to explain, I was like ‘well my car is over here, we just called you guys, it got broken into, we were just over here and we just seen some guys.’ So then they took us down to the police station from there.
You know I wasn’t thinking ‘hey they are accusing us we should be having lawyers’ or nothing, not even in a remote ball-field of my thought. Because honestly when you don’t do nothing and you don’t do nothing wrong you really don’t have nothing to worry about is what I thought. I honestly just figured they will figure it out and take our statements, you know, get our witness statements and we would be on our way and everything would be fine. It never crossed my mind that they are going to start accusing me. It crossed my mind that they might try to say something but honestly, I just figured you can’t kill somebody and get away with it, they got to obviously know better. I didn’t even know the guy had died until later on that night. I just knew at that point that the dude was messed up. And so it wasn’t even, ‘this is a death and you are being accused of a homicide’ or any of that sh**. I didn’t think about anything even along those lines.”
Evidence Points to Different Suspects
Fingerprint analysis later revealed that it was not Ledeau who broke into the car. It was 16-year-olds Arlin Bird and James Hopkins. Bird and Hopkins denied involvement in Ledeau’s murder; however, police found bloody clothing and a hammer at their house, which was less than two blocks from where Ledeau’s body was found.
The day after Ledeau’s murder, Staley’s probation officer went to his house because he had violated his probation by being out past curfew on the night of the incident. The probation officer found a note attached to his front door. It was addressed to his pregnant girlfriend, Rochelle Smith-Sterner, and it explained that he was leaving because he did not want to go to prison.
Staley and Smith-Sterner were discovered a few days later in a Helena, Montana motel. They were arrested. Staley was held for violating his probation and Smith-Sterner was charged with harboring a fugitive.
Staley Falsely Implicates Burkhart
Detectives interrogated Staley about Ledeau’s murder, but he assured them that he and Burkhart had nothing to do with it. They had only approached the scene to talk to the officers because their car had been broken into nearby and the suspects were running away.
But after Staley failed to incriminate Burkhart, a police officer walked Smith-Sterner to an interrogation room. The police officer told him his girlfriend would birth their child in prison. The intimidation tactic worked. Staley changed his story and told the detectives that Burkhart killed Ledeau with a ball-peen hammer.
A ball-peen hammer was found near Burkhart’s car, but there were no fingerprints or blood on it. Following Staley’s admission, the prosecution told the crime lab not to test the clothes or hammer found at the Bird and Hopkins residence.
Burkhart and Staley were arrested and charged with deliberate homicide on December 10, 2001. Burkhart’s trial took place in September 2002 at Cascade County District Court. Burkhart said the case relied heavily on stereotypes.
“They were more interested in what my actions were versus what the facts are,” Burkhart said. “Tell me a fact that you know that puts me as a killer. Stop telling me that I smoke marijuana and drink alcohol. Everything they tried to do was always about how bad of a guy I was.”
In exchange for testifying against Burkhart, Staley’s charge was dropped to obstruction of justice—which he pled guilty to—and Smith-Sterner’s charge was dismissed. His testimony detailed a fake account of Burkhart chasing Ledeau down an alley and striking him in the head with a hammer. Staley also testified that he and Burkhart lied about their car being broken into.
The defense’s case rested on the theory that Bird and Hopkins, the teenagers who broke into the car, killed Ledeau. Bird admitted that he and Ledeau liked the same girl, but he denied involvement in the murder.
The jury found Burkhart guilty, and he was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole until he served 30 years. Staley received 10 years for the obstruction charge, but his sentence was later reduced, making him immediately eligible for parole.
Richard Burkhart on being falsely accused by his friend:
“I was trying to figure out what it was that was motivating him to do what he was doing. I mean, I honestly didn’t know until I had found out what they had did, and then I realized, oh f***, well now I understand. I think a lot of anger left for him when I found that out. When you are in love, you know what I mean, I would give my life for my wife. If it meant for her not to be in trouble for something or something like that and it meant me to take the hit, then I would, even if it wasn’t true. The realization is that for my wife, I would spend the rest of my life in prison because I love her that much. If he was in love with his lady, I’m not saying he is or isn’t but for whatever it is, I would give my life for my wife. So I think a lot of anger left for the situation when I had found that out. If my wife was pregnant and it meant to hang him, I don’t know that I could hang somebody else but I could definitely take a hit myself. The only difference was he tried to turn it from – instead of just taking the hit for himself he tried to make me take a hit for his lady and that is the part that pisses me off. I mean I understand you want your lady out of jail, she is pregnant, and you don’t want nothing like that and you don’t want her in trouble and you got to say whatever you got to say but I would not throw my friend under the bus and try to save myself. So that part is hard for me to understand, for him to save his lady, that is completely understandable.”
MTIP Takes the Case
The Montana Innocence Project took Burkhart’s case in 2014. Staley told MTIP investigator, Spencer Veysey, that he falsely implicated Burkhart because he thought Burkhart was going to falsely implicate him.
MTIP also attempted to get the clothes and hammer from Bird and Hopkins’ house tested, but the evidence had already been returned to Bird and Hopkins.
Shortly after, MTIP received the prosecution’s file, which entailed a previously undisclosed report from a Great Falls police detective detailing an interview with a man named Nathan Rolfs who said Hopkins told him that Bird killed Ledeau. Hopkins told Rolfs that he and Bird were breaking into cars when they saw Ledeau in the alley. Bird hid behind a dumpster with a hammer. When Ledeau walked by, he struck him in the head several times. Bird later discarded the hammer in the Pacific Ocean. On October 2, 2002, the detective attached a note to the report that said “this information will be furnished to the County Attorney’s Office.”
Armed with Staley’s recantation and the interview with Hopkins, MTIP filed a motion for a new trial. The judge found that the prosecution did not deliberately fail to furnish the interview but that the prosecutors likely were not paying careful attention to incoming police reports by October 2002 because the trial had already concluded by then. Based on this, the judge granted Burkhart a new trial.
The State Drops the Charge
When preparing their new case, the prosecution interviewed Staley. He confirmed that he lied at the original trial. Without Staley’s false testimony, the prosecution was unable to prove Burkart murdered Ledeau beyond a reasonable doubt. They dropped the charges against him on December 29, 2017. Burkhart was released on September 14, 2018, after he completed a 10-year prison term for his involvement in a prison riot. He would not have been in the prison riot if he were not wrongfully incarcerated when it occurred; however, he does not minimize his participation.
“I didn’t start the riot,” Burkhart said. “I wasn’t trying to be involved. It was just that my cell door was open, and I didn’t have anywhere to go. I didn’t destroy anything. I didn’t set any fires. My main objective was to look out for my friends. I wasn’t mad or upset, but it occurred on my block, and I didn’t have anywhere to go. If it’s happening you have no choice. The only thing you can do is keep you and your friends safe. I accepted the penalty because I accepted the fact that I was there, and I didn’t stop anything.”
Since his release, Burkhart has moved to Galveston, Texas, and recently married. He has moved forward in life without holding onto anger, but he believes that the people who wrongfully convicted him will face moral consequences.
“You might have the power to put people in jail,” Burkhart said. “You might have the power to dictate somebody else’s life. But you’re going to have to pay for an answer to that someday. Don’t know when, and I don’t know how it works. But I’m sure that you’re going to. You say karma, but I’m thinking God. He’ll have something to say.”
“Don’t let your past ruin your future” is the mantra Burkhart lives by today.
“I go to work, I have a loving wife, I have good friends that care about me, and I live my life,” Burkhart said. “I live my life how I need to. I go on vacation. I’ve seen the Cowboys play; I’ve been to the Cowboy’s stadium a few times. I go up to Moab and ride motorcycles. I live my life, and do the things I love to do.”