Spoiler Alert! The Letter in Fiction
In series six of the popular crime fiction television show, Shetland, Donna is on her death bed when she asks Duncan to post a letter for her. That letter is received and opened after Donna’s demise and causes a whole lot of trouble. My lawyer-self said to my viewer-self, “that can’t happen! Everyone knows that letter is hearsay and thus inadmissible. Evidence Rule 802.”
My viewer-self retorted: “Yeah, what the Linehan trial?” This was a case widely reported nationally a few years ago including on NBC’s Dateline and CBS’ 48 Hours.
Dead Man Named His Killer, The Letter in Real Life
Mechele Linehan was an exotic dancer in Anchorage who, through the course of her employment, met one Kent Leppink and one John Carlin III. She was living with both of them in 1996. Leppink was obsessed with her. He told people that she was his fiancé. He even purchased a $1 million life insurance policy naming her as his beneficiary.
But he began to suspect she was having an affair with Carlin. Five days before his death, he changed the beneficiary to his father. His body was dumped near Hope, Alaska, shot to death.
After his death, his parents received a letter from him stating that if he died under suspicious circumstances, Carlin and Linehan were probably responsible. Then the case went cold. In 2004, based on witness interviews and emails recovered from two computers, the police developed the theory that Linehan had convinced Carlin to lure Leppink to Hope in order to murder him for the insurance money. Carlin was arrested, tried, and convicted of first-degree murder.
Linehan was then tried. The “letter from the beyond the grave” was admitted. She was convicted.
On appeal, her conviction was reverse in part because of the admission of the letter. Linehan v State, 224 P 3d 126 (Alaska 2010). A new trial was ordered but the prosecution decided not to go forward because evidence had come to light pointing the finger at Leppink’s father. Her conviction is now listed on the National Registry of Exonerations: Mechele Linehan – National Registry of Exonerations (umich.edu)
That’s not the only case where a “letter from beyond the grave” led to murder charges. In Wisconsin, Mark Jensen’s wife’s letter used to convict him. Before Julie Jensen was found dead from ingesting antifreeze, she had given a letter to her neighbors should anything happen to her. His claimed she set him up. Mark Jensen was convicted in 2008 and sentenced to life. The conviction was reversed on appeal, and he is currently awaiting a new trial.
There is an exception to the hearsay rule that allows admission of a “dying declaration.” A statement made by a declarant while believing that death is imminent, concerning the cause or circumstances of what the declarant believed to be impending death is admissible. Evidence Rule 804. This was the case in 2018 when Lizette Cuesta was found along a California roadside with more than two dozen stab wounds. Her last few words to first responders were the names of the persons responsible. Within twelve hours, her assailants, Daniel Gross and Melissa Leonardo, were arrested and charged with murder.
Moral of the Story
The moral of the story for writers is: A dying declaration is inadmissible unless the fear of death is imminent, but these statements are sometimes admitted when they shouldn’t be and can lead to conviction. The prosecutors sometimes charge innocent people. They also sometimes charge guilty people but have thin evidence. And sometimes the guilty go free. So it’s fair game and an author can manipulate a story around a “letter from the grave” to credibly wreak all kinds of havoc.
While still in high school, she was one of the illustrators of the original Dungeons and Dragons. Art seemed an impractical pursuit – not an heiress, wouldn’t marry well, hated teaching – so she went to law school instead. When not writing or practicing law, Keenan can be found oil painting, studying the Irish language, or hanging out with her friends at mystery conventions.
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