Skip Ribbon Commands
Skip to main content

Richard Burkhart

Other Montana Innocence Organization Exonerations
https://www.law.umich.edu/special/exoneration/PublishingImages/Richard_Burkhart.jpg
On November 13, 2001, police, responding to a 911 call, found the body of 21-year-old William Ledeau at the intersection of 12th Street and 1 Alley North in Great Falls, Montana. He had been struck four times in the head with a blunt object.

At the scene, Great Falls police officer Jamie Pinski was approached by 22-year-old Richard Burkhart and 25-year-old Michael Staley. Burkhart and Staley reported that Burkhart’s car had been broken into nearby. Pinski reported that Burkhart and Staley said they chased two men they saw running away. Staley said that when they caught up to one of the men and confronted him, he threw down his cap and challenged them to a fight. Staley and Burkhart said they backed down and walked away.

Staley and Burkhart became suspects when they agreed that a cap found next to Ledeau’s body was the cap the man had thrown to the ground, and Ledeau’s aunt identified the cap as belonging to Ledeau.

The investigation was complicated, however, by the discovery that two 16-year-olds—Arlin Bird and James Hopkins—were the ones who stole cigarettes, change, and a jacket from Burkhart’s car and had unsuccessfully tried to pry open Burkhart’s trunk to steal stereo speakers. Bird and Hopkins, whose fingerprints were found on Burkhart’s car, denied involvement in Ledeau’s death.

Police confiscated bloody clothing and a hammer at the home where Bird and Hopkins lived less than two blocks from where Ledeau was killed. That evidence was sent them to the Montana State Police crime laboratory in Missoula, Montana for analysis.

The day after Ledeau’s murder, a probation officer went looking for Staley because he had violated his probation for a prior conviction by being out late that night. The probation officer found that Staley had tacked a note on his door addressed to his girlfriend, Rochelle Smith-Sterner, saying that he was leaving because he didn’t want to spend the rest of his life in prison.

Several days later, police discovered Staley and Smith-Sterner in a motel in Helena, Montana and arrested them both. Smith-Sterner, who was pregnant with Staley’s child, was charged with harboring a fugitive and Staley was held on a probation violation charge.

When detectives began interrogating Staley about the events of the night of Ledeau’s death, he insisted that he and Burkhart did not kill him. However, after police walked Smith-Sterner in handcuffs past Staley’s cell and told him that she would be giving birth to the baby while in prison, Staley broke down and said that Burkhart had clubbed Ledeau in the head with a ball peen hammer. Although a ball peen hammer had been recovered near Burkhart’s car, there were no fingerprints or blood on it.

The prosecution then ordered the crime lab to refrain from conducting any tests on the clothing and hammer recovered from the home of Bird and Hopkins.

On December 10, based on Staley’s statement Burkhart was arrested and both men were charged with murder. Less than 24 hours after Burkhart was taken to the Cascade County Jail, he was severely beaten by other inmates, suffering a fractured jaw.

In September 2002, Burkhart went to trial in Cascade County District Court. The prosecution’s main witness was Staley. Although Staley had no formal plea agreement, he said he expected to plead guilty to obstruction of justice in return for testifying against Burkhart. In addition, the charge against Smith-Sterner was dismissed.

Staley testified that he saw Burkhart confront Ledeau and strike him in the cheek with a ball peen hammer that had been left on the left front fender of Burkhart’s car. Staley said that Ledeau stumbled backwards and then ran down the alley. Burkhart chased him and landed several blows to Ledeau’s head. Staley said he and Burkhart then agreed to tell police they had encountered someone in the alley, but had backed down.

Ledeau’s aunt testified that Ledeau had left her home and was walking to his residence nearby when he was killed.

The defense suggested that the killers were Arlin Bird and James Hopkins, the two youths who admitted breaking into Burkhart’s car. Bird testified and admitted that he and Ledeau were interested in the same girl at the time, but denied that he and Hopkins were involved in the murder.

On September 19, 2002, after 14 hours of deliberation over two days, the jury convicted Burkhart. He was sentenced to life in prison with no possibility of parole until he had served 30 years.

After the trial, Staley pled guilty and was sentenced to 10 years in prison. That sentence was later reduced to make him immediately eligible for parole.

In December 2004, the Montana Supreme Court upheld the conviction.

In 2014, the Montana Innocence Project began reinvestigating the case and investigator Spencer Veysey located Staley and knocked on his door. Staley said he wondered when someone would come to him and said he thought about Burkhart virtually ever day because he had lied.

After Staley recanted his testimony, saying he had falsely implicated Burkhart because he feared Burkhart was going to falsely implicate him, lawyers at the Montana Innocence Project filed a motion for a new trial and sought to obtain the clothing seized from Bird and Hopkins so that it could be submitted for DNA testing.

They were informed that the evidence seized from Bird and Hopkins had been returned to them at the time without ever being tested. At the same time, however, they obtained the prosecution’s trial file. In it, they discovered a report from a Great Falls police detective documenting an interview with a man who said that Hopkins admitted to him that Bird had killed Ledeau.

The report said that on September 20, 2002—the day after Burkhart was convicted—Nathan Rolfs told the detective that he had been in a juvenile detention facility with Hopkins in the summer of 2002 when Hopkins admitted that he and Bird killed Ledeau.

Because the detective was off-duty at the time, he arranged for Rolfs to come to the station on September 26, 2002 for a videotaped interview. At that time, Rolfs said that Hopkins told him that he and Bird were breaking into cars on the night of the crime when they saw Ledeau coming down an alley.

Rolfs said that Bird grabbed a hammer and hid behind a garbage can with Hopkins. When Ledeau approached, they jumped out and confronted him. Hopkins said that Ledeau yelled, “There is two of you and one of me, let’s do this.”

Bird then hit Ledeau in the side of the head with the hammer. Ledeau sank to his knees and Bird hit him once or twice more. Hopkins then shoved Ledeau to the ground with his foot, Rolfs said.

Rolfs told the detective that Hopkins said that Bird took the hammer home and buried it. Later, he dug it up and took it to Portland, where he threw it into the Pacific Ocean.

When the detectives questioned Rolfs about whether Hopkins was bragging or lying, Rolfs said that Hopkins had cried as he recounted what happened. “If someone was going to brag about killing someone—but they didn’t do it—to look cool, why would they cry?” Rolfs said. “That don’t make no one look cool. He cried for like an hour in front of me. He said he prayed to God all the time, asking for forgiveness.”

The detectives located Bird and sought to question him, but Bird denied involvement and refused to speak further.

On October 2, 2002, the detective attached notes from the brief interview with Bird to his report and added that “this information will be furnished to the County Attorney’s Office.”

Based on the discovery, Burkhart’s lawyers filed a motion for a new trial. On November 23, 2016, Cascade County District Court Judge John Kutzman vacated Burkhart’s conviction and ordered a new trial.

Although the judge found that the prosecution had not deliberately failed to turn over the information, he ruled that it should have been disclosed. “The most likely scenario on this record is that the prosecutors had moved on from this case to the next case and were no longer paying careful attention to incoming police reports,” the judge said.

Judge Kutzman ruled that there was a “reasonable probability” that Burkhart would have been granted a new trial and acquitted if the statement from Rolfs had been disclosed at the time.

The prosecution moved to appeal the ruling, but before filing its appeals brief, reversed course. The prosecution dismissed the appeal and said it would seek to retry Burkhart. In preparation for trial, the prosecution interviewed Staley after granting him immunity from prosecution.

Staley again said he and Burkhart were not involved in the crime and that he had lied at the trial.

On December 29, 2017, the prosecution filed a motion to dismiss the charge against Burkhart, saying in part that Staley "admitted that he had deliberately and with malicious/self-serving intent misled the original investigators and the jury by testifying falsely at the original trial.”

Judge Kutzman granted the motion and dismissed the charge, saying that “the State represents, and this Court agrees, that the State cannot now prove the case against Mr. Burkhart beyond a reasonable doubt.”

Burkhart remained in custody to finish serving a 10-year prison term imposed after pleading guilty to participating in a riot in prison.

– Maurice Possley

Report an error or add more information about this case.

Posting Date: 1/7/2018
State:Montana
County:Cascade
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:2001
Convicted:2002
Exonerated:2017
Sentence:Life
Race:Caucasian
Sex:Male
Age at the date of crime:22
Contributing Factors:Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No