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Luke Wirkkala

Other Oregon exonerations
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In the early morning hours of February 4, 2013, police were called to the home of 32-year-old Luke Wirkkala in Bend, Oregon. They found him sitting on the floor near the body of 31-year-old David Ryder, who had been fatally shot in the neck with a shotgun.

Wirkkala admitted that he shot Ryder, but said he was acting in self-defense. Wirkkala said after several hours of drinking, he had passed out on the couch. He said he awoke when Ryder pulled off his pants and sexually assaulted him—forcing his penis into Wirkkala’s mouth.

Wirkkala broke away, and retrieved a shotgun from his bedroom. He said he pointed it at Ryder and ordered him to leave. When Ryder did not, Wirkkala pumped the shotgun, ejecting an unfired shell to the floor. Ryder rushed at him and Wirkkala fired once, fatally wounding Ryder.

Wirkkala was taken to the police station where he was questioned. Fourteen hours after the shooting, Wirkkala was charged with first-degree murder.

Prior to his trial, Wirkkala’s lawyer, Walter Todd, moved to suppress a portion of a video tape of the interrogation. The recording lasted eight minutes and the prosecution contended that some of Wirkkala’s statements showed that he was angry and aggressive. At one point, Wirkkala made a phone call to his father during which he used the word “murder.” The prosecution said this was evidence that the shooting was not in self-defense because Wirkkala had not been charged.

Todd noted that prior to making those statements, Bend police detective Tim Knea said, “[S]o there’s another male that was at the house. What’s his name?”

Wirkkala paused, then asked, “What was his name?”

“Yeah,” Knea said.

Bend police officer Mike Hatoor then asked, “What was his name?”

Wirkkala said, “I appreciate the hospitality here, fellas, but I think I’m going to get a lawyer.”

Knea replied, “Well, that’s obviously something that you have a right to, like I said, okay?”

After Wirkkala identified Ryder, Knea said, “And…I understand there’s probably a little bit of trepidation about talking to me, okay? However, I don’t know what happened, dude, at all.”

“Well, [n]either do I,” Wirkkala replied. “So, get in [obscenity] line. Sorry. Sorry. That was rude. Go ahead.”

“I’ll give you a little time to sober up and then we’ll talk,” Knea said. “But you’re going to be here for a little bit, so just make yourself comfortable….This is not exactly how I wanted this whole thing to go down. I just wanted to get kind of an idea of what happened. And from the get-go, you’re kinda not being real.”

“Not being real?” Wirkkala said.

“No,” Knea said. “You’re not being real nice to me, okay? And I don’t know you from anybody, dude….So just chill out. You can sober up.”

Wirkkala then said that Knea was a “kind of a prick.”

When Knea complained that he had been awakened at 3 a.m. to investigate the shooting, Wirkkala said, “So what? That’s your [obscenity] job….I just [obscenity] saw a [obscenity] body on my [obscenity] floor, blood oozing out in my [obscenity] kitchen, so [obscenity] you. You’re going to tell me how to wake up? You don’t know [obscenity] about a [obscenity] wake-up.”

The trial judge denied the motion to suppress the statements, except for Wirkkala’s statement saying he was going to get a lawyer, which was stricken.

On June 3, 2014, Wirkkala went to trial in Deschutes County Circuit Court. During opening statements, Wirkkala’s lawyers said the evidence would show that the two men began drinking earlier in the day at the Hideaway Tavern in Bend to watch the Superbowl football game. After the game, they purchased more alcohol and went to Wirkkala’s home. There, his girlfriend, Rachel Rasmussen, her 11-year-old son, and her 16-year-old nephew went to bed while Ryder and Wirkkala stayed up drinking. Rasmussen and the boys were asleep when the shooting occurred. The defense said that Ryder sexually assaulted Wirkkala about 2:30 a.m. after Wirkkala passed out on the couch.

Wirkkala managed to break free, retrieved a shotgun from the bedroom, ordered Ryder to leave. Ryder then charged, defense attorney Todd said. “Mr. Wirkkala brought the shotgun around, no time to aim, and pulls the trigger, and it was a shot in self-defense,” Todd said.

The prosecution presented testimony that Ryder’s blood alcohol content was .23 percent, nearly three times the .08 percent threshold for driving while intoxicated. Shane Bessett, a forensic scientist with the Oregon State Police Crime Lab, testified that Wirkkala’s blood alcohol content was .08 percent about 11 hours after the shooting. Bessett said he performed a “retrograde extrapolation” to determine that Wirkkala’s blood alcohol content at the time of the shooting was between .18 and .38 percent.

Deputy state medical examiner Christopher Young testified that Ryder was shot in the neck at close range. “It was between zero and 6 or 7 inches, and on the closer half of that,” Young said. His analysis was based on examination of soot from gunpower on Ryder’s neck.

Crime lab analysts also testified that DNA testing was performed on Ryder’s penis and identified the presence of Wirkkala’s DNA. Jurors viewed photographs of Wirkkala’s neck which showed scratches on Wirkkala’s neck. DNA testing was performed on material found under Ryder’s fingernails. The left hand was found to have Wirkkala’s DNA, but the testing on Ryder’s right hand was inconclusive. The prosecution contended that the lack of Wirkkala’s DNA on Ryder’s right hand contradicted Wirkkala’s claim that Ryder choked him with both hands. Semen was found on the couch and on Ryder’s sweatpants, although the source was not identified.

A firearms analyst said that based on the gunpowder soot found on Ryder’s neck, he had been shot at close range.

The prosecution presented testimony that Wirkkala’s fingerprints were found on the shotgun.

Rasmussen’s nephew, by then 18, testified that he had fallen asleep wearing headphones and did not hear the gunshot. However, he said he awoke to the sound of glass breaking and a thud. He said he heard Wirkkala sobbing and saying that he had killed Ryder. Earlier in the night, the nephew said, he heard Wirkkala say, “I hate that you are moving.”

The prosecution presented witnesses who said that Ryder, a computer engineer, had recently taken a job in Atlanta and was planning to move there.

The video tape of Wirkkala was shown to the jury. It included Wirkkala using officer Hatoor’s phone to call his father. “I’m in jail for murder,” Wirkkala said. “I’m sitting in a cop station accused of [redacted] murder right now.”

The prosecution contended that because Wirkkala had not yet been charged, he was acknowledging what he did.

A former co-worker of Ryder’s testified that Ryder could be obnoxious and would become flirtatious when he was intoxicated, though only with women.

Ryder’s widow testified that Ryder had been involved sexually with men in the past. “He had had experiences that would have been falling into the category as homosexual,” she testified.

Suzanne Best, a clinical psychologist, testified for the defense that Wirkkala’s “physiological, emotional and cognitive symptoms were consistent with peritraumatic dissociation.” She said this set of symptoms was consistent with someone who has perceived a threat, noting that some common symptoms are tunnel vision, a sense of unreality, and disorientation.

Wirkkala testified that he had passed out and awakened to Ryder, who was several inches taller and about 50 pounds heavier, pulling off his pants.

“I said, ‘No, not going to happen,’” Wirkkala said. “Then he grabbed me by the throat and started yelling… He grabbed me by the back of the neck and forced my head down into his lap,” Wirkkala testified, choking back tears. “He said to me, ‘I know you want to be with a man.’”

“He was someone I considered a friend, who I invited into my house and who tried to rape and strangle me,” Wirkkala said. He said that he escaped Ryder’s grasp, got his shotgun and ordered Ryder to leave. He said he pumped the shotgun, ejecting a live shell onto the floor, but Ryder came at him anyway.

“I said, ‘I’ll [obscenity] kill you,” Wirkkala said, adding that he never intended to do so.

“He’s right in my face,” Wirkkala said. “I swung the gun down, his arm came flying up at me and I pulled the trigger. He had this twisted, sadistic grin on his face.”

Wirkkala’s defense lawyer noted that Rasmussen testified that Wirkkala was crying when he came into the bedroom to get the shotgun. “I was ashamed of what just happened…Because he had just overpowered me and violated me,” Wirkkala testified.

After the shooting, Wirkkala said, “I felt an overwhelming sense of relief. Then I saw the wound and that sense of relief turned to be horrified. I dropped the gun and started saying, ‘Oh my God, I killed him.’ I was in tears.”

Three witnesses—a former girlfriend, a friend and a former co-worker—testified that Wirkkala was a peaceful person who was not aggressive and not argumentative.

The defense also called three former co-workers of Ryder who testified they believed Ryder was bisexual. One witness said that Ryder had offered to perform oral sex on them, but they didn’t believe he was serious because he was intoxicated. One said that the victim was “hypersexual when drunk and an aggressive bisexual” who “liked to push buttons when he was drunk or drinking.”

During closing argument, the prosecution argued that Wirkkala’s aggressive and angry behavior shown on the videotape of his interrogation was evidence that he was not acting in self-defense. The prosecutor, chief deputy district attorney Mary Anderson focused on the difference between Wirkkala’s demeanor in the interrogation video and his more “appropriate” and “articulate demeanor during the trial.”

“Now, the defendant, as he appeared in court—and you can take a moment to look at him,” Anderson said. “Well dressed. He’s been appropriate through trial, articulate on the stand, knows the case well, described—you know, self-described anxiety in social situations. A storyteller, a writer, someone who composes, works things through. But you are not looking just at the defendant as he appears before you today.”

“We are talking about the defendant” on June 4, 2013, Anderson said. “His conduct on that day, how he behaved, how he acted. And that’s really difficult because for the last eight days, that’s the [defendant] you’ve seen; the [defendant] in court. The [defendant] who has an incentive and a motive to present a certain way.”

Anderson and co-prosecutor Kandy Gies argued that the sex between Ryder and Wirkkala was consensual. On June 14, 2014, after seven hours of deliberation over two days, the jury convicted Wirkkala of murder. He was sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole after 25 years.

On appeal, Wirkkala’s lawyers argued that the trial judge erred in failing to suppress Wirkkala’s statements after he asked for a lawyer. The lawyers also said that the trial judge had erroneously barred the defense from presenting evidence that Ryder had a prior incident of violence in which he resisted police and three officers were required to subdue him.

On February 14, 2018, the Oregon Court of Appeals reversed Wirkkala’s conviction and ordered a new trial. The appeals court ruled that everything on the video of Wirkkala’s interrogation after he said he wanted a lawyer should have been suppressed. The appeals court did not address the issue of the evidence of Ryder’s behavior in the past.

The court said, “[W]e agree with defendant that police impermissibly continued their interrogation after defendant invoked his right to counsel, that the trial court therefore erred in denying the motion to suppress, and that the error was not harmless.”

The court noted that the video of the interrogation was “the state’s only evidence of the defendant becoming defensive and hostile toward police upon mention of the victim.”

By the time Wirkkala went to trial a second time in March 2021, his lawyers, Joel Wirtz and Thad Betz, had obtained another round of DNA testing on the scrapings from Ryder’s fingernails. The crime lab had updated its software since the first trial and a result, these tests were conclusive that Wirkkala’s DNA was present under Ryder’s fingernails of both hands. The defense lawyers argued that this supported Wirkkala’s testimony that Ryder grabbed him around the neck and choked him in an attempt to force him to engage in oral sex. In addition, testing was done on Ryder’s boxer shorts and Wirkkala’s DNA was not present. The defense said that had there been consensual sex, Wirkkala’s DNA would certainly be present on the boxer shorts.

On April 5, 2021, the jury acquitted Wirkkala and he was released.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 4/28/2021
Last Updated: 4/28/2021
State:Oregon
County:Deschutes
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:2013
Convicted:2014
Exonerated:2021
Sentence:Life
Race/Ethnicity:White
Sex:Male
Age at the date of reported crime:32
Contributing Factors:
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:Yes*