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Sarah Pearce was freed Friday after 3rd District Court Judge Juneal Kerrick granted post-conviction relief and amended Pearce’s 2003 sentence to time served after a compromise deal between Canyon County prosecutors and attorneys with the Idaho Innocence Project.
“This is a tragic misidentification,” Pearce told Kerrick.
“I did not commit this crime, but all the same I was punished for it.
“The experience goes almost too deep for words.
“I will try to walk away from this taking more from it than it has taken from me.”
Pearce was one of four people convicted in the roadside kidnapping, beating and stabbing of Linda LeBrane, a Port Townsend woman left to die alongside her car after it was set on fire.
LeBrane was driving through Idaho on Interstate 84 in June 2000, headed from her home to her family cabin in Utah, when she was forced from the road.
Her assailants took her and her car to a secluded road west of Caldwell, where they hit her with a metal baseball bat, repeatedly stabbed her, slashed her throat and left her for dead next to her car, which they set on fire, authorities said.
When her attackers left, LeBrane rolled away from the burning car and was rescued by passers-by who saw the flames.
“Sarah was the ringleader,” LeBrane said in court. “She kept screaming to the men ... ‘kill her, kill her.’ I begged her again and again for mercy and she showed me no mercy.”
Efforts by the Peninsula Daily News to reach LeBrane on Sunday were unsuccessful.
In a Jan. 29, 2012, PDN article, LeBrane said she went through months of medical recovery, two years of intense physical therapy and five years of psychiatric treatment, and suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.
“We lost our house because I couldn’t work,” LeBrane said at the time. “It’s still really hard for me to go out.”
But LeBrane did go on to mark many accomplishments, earning a master’s degree in creative writing from Goddard College in July 2011.
She also played violin in the Port Townsend Community Orchestra and was a founding member of the Rhododendron Festival’s Lawn Chair Drill Team.
She has written poetry and said in 2012 she was writing an account of her assault “so I can finally get it out of my brain.”
Two of the four assailants remain in custody in the Idaho prison system.
Kenneth Wurdemann was released in early 2012, while Jeremy Flores Sanchez and John David Wurdemann, Kenneth Wurdemann’s brother, are serving life sentences, according to the Idaho Department of Corrections.
The Idaho Innocence Project has worked on Pearce’s behalf since 2007 on the belief her conviction was a case of mistaken identity.
The group said LeBrane reported that the woman who joined her three male attackers was petite, pretty and spoke Spanish to one of the men, who could have been her boyfriend.
Pearce is 5 feet 6 inches tall, doesn’t date men, was 17 at the time and doesn’t speak Spanish.
The Idaho Innocence Project also said that 30 minutes after a witness claimed to have spotted Pearce at a motel with the three men, a group matching the attackers’ descriptions — three Hispanic men and a Hispanic woman in a maroon car — used the victim’s stolen credit card 60 miles away in Jordan Valley, Ore.
“We think it was a case of mistaken identity pure and simple, with tragic consequences,” said Greg Hampikian, director of the Idaho Innocence Project.
Bryan Taylor, Canyon County prosecutor, in a statement said Friday’s post-conviction relief deal confirms Pearce’s guilt, “which has been proven beyond a reasonable doubt and to the satisfaction of a jury of her peers.
“More importantly, it reaffirms that the only truly innocent person in this sad story of senseless violence is Linda LeBrane.”
Kerrick, who sentenced Pearce in 2003, said the case has been difficult.
She noted LeBrane’s certainty in identifying Pearce, but also numerous questions about the accuracy of that identification.
She also noted that Pearce has been in prison longer than the 10 years prosecutors offered her during her initial trial in exchange for a guilty plea, which Pearce declined.
“If in fact you did not commit these crimes,” Kerrick told Pearce, “then one day (in prison) was too many. So there has been tremendous loss on both sides.”
Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.