Judge orders new trial in '07 homicide

·3 min read

Jan. 4—A Nez Perce County judge has ordered a new trial for Leotis B. Branigh III, the man sentenced to life in prison in 2009 without the possibility of parole for the alleged 2007 murder of Michael S. Johnston in the Lewiston Orchards.

Branigh, 45, represented himself at his 2008 trial after strong disagreements with his attorney, Charles Kovis, led them to split — although Kovis stayed on in an advisory role. Late last week, 2nd District Judge Jeff Brudie granted Branigh's motion for a new trial based on ineffective counsel, partly because of Kovis' decision to change strategy right before the trial without informing his client.

"It is clear this misunderstanding about trial strategy prejudiced Branigh as it led to a breakdown in his attorney-client relationship with Kovis," Brudie wrote in his order for a new trial. "This breakdown ultimately resulted in Branigh, without preparation or training, representing himself in a first degree murder trial."

Branigh called several witnesses at an evidentiary hearing regarding his motion last spring, including private investigators and a psychiatrist who evaluated his competency to stand trial. But Brudie faulted the prosecution for not presenting evidence to counter Branigh's assertions.

"While there is strong presumption that Kovis was competent and diligent in his representation, no evidence or testimony has been submitted to rebut Branigh's claims," Brudie wrote. "On the record before this Court Branigh was unaware of Kovis's decisions regarding the trial strategy until the morning of trial. These changes in the trial strategy should have at minimum been communicated to Branigh prior to that point."

Nez Perce County Prosecutor Justin Coleman said he didn't accept Brudie's assertion that there was no rebuttal from the state, noting Deputy Prosecutor Nance Ceccarelli presented prior evidence and testimony at the hearing, including materials from the trial.

Coleman also said his office has prevailed on every single appeal and post-conviction action Branigh has attempted since his conviction until now, and he was only able to file his motion for a new trial because the Idaho Supreme Court sent the case back to District Court based on the court failing to meet a notification deadline.

Brudie was the judge at Branigh's 2008 trial, Coleman added, and made the decision to allow him to represent himself in the first place.

Coleman said he would make every effort to appeal Brudie's decision. He has already begun discussions with the Idaho Attorney General's Office, which would handle that appeal. If Branigh ultimately does get a new trial, Coleman said his office will mount an aggressive prosecution to ensure there is justice for the alleged victim and his family.

Branigh was charged in 2007 with shooting Johnston outside Johnston's Lewiston Orchards home and leading police on a high-speed chase. The fatal shooting occurred less than a year after Branigh was released from prison on a separate conviction. Branigh was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole, with an additional 15-year prison term for using a firearm in the case.

Mills may be contacted at jmills@lmtribune.com.

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