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John Wurdemann

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At about 2:30 a.m. on June 15, 2000, 52-year-old Linda LeBrane was driving east from her home in Port Townsend, Washington, on Interstate 84 near the town of Caldwell, in eastern Idaho, when her car was forced off the road.

Three assailants – two men and a woman – pushed their way into her car, and she was driven away. A third man followed in the assailants’ car, and the group stopped on a deserted road near a beet field. There, LeBrane was beaten with a baseball bat, stabbed, robbed of $40 and a credit card, and left on the side of the road. A short time later, the group returned and set her car on fire. LeBrane was rescued by two teenagers who came upon the blaze.

The Canyon County Sheriff’s Office investigated the case. LeBrane worked with a sketch artist to create composite drawings of her assailants. The incident received widespread publicity and was featured on the television show “America’s Most Wanted.” Nearly two years later, in early March 2002, a viewer of that program in Rock Hill, South Carolina, called in a tip. The viewer said that one of the sketches looked like Kenneth Wurdemann, 33, who had lived in Caldwell for a brief time before moving to South Carolina. Wurdemann was arrested and extradited to Idaho. He identified the two other men in the attack as his younger brother, John David Wurdemann, 31, and Jeremy Sanchez, 26.

John Wurdemann was in an Idaho prison at the time on an unrelated conviction for credit-card fraud. On March 11, 2002, he was charged in the attack on LeBrane after she picked him out of a video line-up. A fourth suspect, Sarah Pearce, 19, was arrested a month later.

Kenneth Wurdemann pled guilty to robbery and aggravated assault. He did not testify against his brother but did testify against Sanchez, who after a mistrial was convicted on October 21, 2003 of conspiracy to commit robbery, robbery, conspiracy to commit first-degree kidnapping, first-degree kidnapping, aggravated battery, and attempted first-degree murder. Pearce was convicted in January 16, 2004 of conspiracy to commit robbery, robbery, conspiracy to commit first-degree kidnapping, first-degree kidnapping, aggravated battery, and aiding and abetting attempted first-degree murder.

Based largely on LeBrane’s testimony and identification, John Wurdemann was convicted on August 16, 2002 of conspiracy to commit robbery; robbery; conspiracy to commit first-degree kidnapping; first-degree kidnapping; aggravated battery; aiding and abetting first-degree arson; and aiding and abetting attempted first-degree murder. He was sentenced to four consecutive life sentences plus fifty-five years.

Wurdemann did not testify at his trial. A supervisor at the factory where he worked as a welder told the jury that Wurdemann was on the job just hours before LeBrane was attacked and again less than four hours after the assault. Kenneth Wurdemann – in an affidavit filed in an appeal by Sanchez – recanted his confession and said that neither he, his brother, nor Sanchez was involved. The affidavit was not considered credible by authorities, and Sanchez’s appeal was unsuccessful.

In March 2015, a post-conviction hearing was held in Canyon County District Court. John Wurdemann’s new attorney, Elisa Massoth, argued that Wurdemann’s trial lawyers had provided ineffective counsel by failing – among other things – to challenge the police video lineup where LeBrane identified John Wurdemann.

Massoth identified several problems that undercut the validity of the identification process. The attack had occurred nearly two years earlier, and LeBrane had suffered traumatic head injury. In addition, she said she had smoked two marijuana joints on the night of the crime, and at some point during the attack, she lost her glasses, which greatly impaired her vision. LeBrane said that although it was dark, her interior dome light was on for a brief part of the attack, and that her attacker’s face was at times within three inches of her own. LeBrane had described that assailant, the one who drove her car and later stabbed her, as most likely Hispanic or Native American, very tall and thin, and with long, greasy hair. She said he lacked facial hair, but his face appeared to have a bad rash. In addition, she said her attacker spoke English.

In the aftermath of the attack, while recovering at her home in Washington, LeBrane had viewed three separate photo lineups administered by a police officer in Port Townsend. Wurdemann was in none of these, but each time LeBrane picked a different man – none who was a plausible suspect – as her assailant. After John Wurdemann became a suspect, LeBrane asked investigators to conduct a video lineup, so that she could get a better sense of movement and voice. Wurdemann was one of six men in that lineup, but he was the only one who resembled LeBrane’s basic description of this assailant.

Daniel Reisberg, a behavioral psychologist from Reed College in Portland, Oregon, who has studied eyewitness memory, testified at the evidentiary hearing on March 5, 2015. “In this setting, in which there really was only one realistic option,” he explained, “the police had artificially made this a very easy choice. Therefore, essentially, guaranteeing that they were going to inflate witness confidence. And so, this lineup has -- I mean, almost everything that could go wrong did go wrong.”

In July 2015, Canyon County District Court Judge Renae Hoff ruled that Wurdemann had received ineffective assistance of counsel and granted him a new trial. Hoff said that Wurdemann’s attorneys, in addition to challenging the video lineup, should also have retained an expert on eyewitness identification to challenge LeBrane’s testimony. Wurdemann was released on a $100,000 bond on October 28, 2015.

The state appealed Judge Hoff’s decision, asserting that Wurdemann’s trial had been fair and that his attorney’s decision not to challenge the lineup was not ineffective counsel, but rather a flawed strategy.

On December 24, 2016, while the appeal was pending, Wurdemann was charged with unlawful possession of a weapon by a convicted felon. On February 4, 2017, he was arrested in Oregon after he sped away from police and threw a firearm out of his vehicle. He was convicted and sentenced to probation on the charges.

On February 28, 2017, the Idaho Supreme Court upheld Judge Hoff’s decision. The court said the video lineup was “the epitome of an improperly suggestive lineup,” since “Wurdemann was the only participant who met LeBrane’s description of her attacker.” The court said there was no strategic decision involved, “simply a failure to do so.”

On January 29, 2018, on the motion of the prosecution, Canyon County District Court Judge George Southworth dismissed the charges.

Wurdemann subsequently sued his trial attorneys, Scott Fouser and Vannoy Bishop, for malpractice. That case, filed in Canyon County District Court, was dismissed by agreement in 2020 and the terms were not disclosed.

Wurdemann filed a claim for state compensation in 2021 after the state passed a compensation law. The claim was denied in November 2022. His lawyers appealed the ruling to the Idaho Supreme Court.

– Ken Otterbourg

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Posting Date: 10/2/2018
Last Updated: 7/6/2023
Most Serious Crime:Attempted Murder
Additional Convictions:Robbery, Assault, Kidnapping, Conspiracy
Reported Crime Date:2000
Race/Ethnicity:Native American
Age at the date of reported crime:29
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID, Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No