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.
Richard becomes a suspect
On November 13, 2001, 22-year-old Richard 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 Richard and Michael 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.
Richard and Michael 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 found a cap next to William’s body and asked Richard and Michael if they recognized it. They confirmed it was the same cap that the teenager threw on the ground. This confirmation made Richard and Michael suspects in the murder because the cap belonged to William. They were taken in for questioning, but they thought it was to give a witness statement about the teenager. Richard said it never crossed his mind that he would be a suspect in the murder.
Richard Burkhart on learning he was a suspect:
Evidence points to different suspects
Fingerprint analysis later revealed that it was not William who broke into the car. It was 16-year-olds Arlin Bird and James Hopkins. Arlin and James denied involvement in William’s murder; however, police found bloody clothing and a hammer at their house, which was less than two blocks from where William’s body was found.
The day after William’s murder, Michael’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 the 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.
Michael and Rochelle were discovered a few days later in a Helena, Montana, motel. They were arrested. Michael was held for violating his probation, and Rochelle was charged with harboring a fugitive.
Michael falsely implicates Richard
Detectives interrogated Michael about William’s murder, but he assured them they had nothing to do with it. He maintained the truth—that 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.
After Michael failed to incriminate Richard, a police officer walked Rochelle to an interrogation room. The police officer told Michael about how she would be forced to give birth to their child in prison. The intimidation tactic worked. Michael changed his story and told the detectives that Richard killed William with a ball-peen hammer.
A ball-peen hammer was found near Richard’s car, but there were no fingerprints or blood on it. Following Michael’s false admission, the prosecution told the crime lab not to test the clothes or hammer found at Arlin and James’ residence.
Richard and Michael were arrested and charged with Deliberate Homicide on December 10, 2001. Richard’s trial took place in September 2002 at Cascade County District Court. Richard said the case relied heavily on stereotypes.
“They were more interested in what my actions were versus what the facts are,” Richard 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 Richard, Michael’s charge was dropped to obstruction of justice, and Rochell’s charge was dismissed. His testimony detailed a fake account of Richard chasing William down an alley and striking him in the head with a hammer. Michael also testified that he and Richard lied about their car being broken into.
The defense’s case rested on the theory that Arlin and James, the teenagers who broke into the car, killed William. Arlin admitted that he and William liked the same girl, but he denied involvement in the murder.
The jury found Richard guilty, and he was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole until he served 30 years. Michael 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:
MTIP takes the case
The Montana Innocence Project took Richard’s case in 2014. Michael told MTIP investigator Spencer Veysey that he falsely implicated Richard because he thought Richard was going to falsely implicate him. MTIP attempted to test the clothes and hammer from Arlin and James’ house for forensic evidence, but the items had already been returned.
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 James told him that Arlin killed William. James told Nathan that he and Arlin were breaking into cars when they saw William in the alley. Arlin hid behind a dumpster with a hammer. When William walked by, he struck him in the head several times. Arlin 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 Michael’s recantation and the interview with Nathan, 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. Based on this, the judge granted Richard a new trial.
The state drops the charge
When preparing their new case, the prosecution interviewed Michael. He confirmed that he lied at the original trial. Without Michael’s false testimony, the prosecution was unable to prove Richard murdered William beyond a reasonable doubt. They dropped the charges against him on December 29, 2017. Richard 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 had he not been wrongfully incarcerated when it occurred; however, he does not minimize his participation.
“I didn’t start the riot,” Richard 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.”
Following his release, Richard moved to Galveston, Texas. Shortly after marrying, Richard and his wife got a new home in Idaho. 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,” Richard 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 Richard 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,” Richard 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.”