(This online story was corrected to clarify the agencies involved in the Lankford brothers’ arrests.)
CALDWELL -- A new jury, a new trial, yet the same result for Mark H. Lankford who was found guilty last week for the 1983 double murder of a Texas couple at an Idaho County campsite.
It took the jury two and a half hours to return with verdicts of guilty late Friday afternoon, Sept. 20, following 10 days of testimony at trial held in Caldwell. The venue was located to southern Idaho to protect Lankford’s Sixth Amendment right to a fair trial, and to provide for an impartial jury pool not prejudiced due to press coverage concerning the case.
Lankford, 63, is currently incarcerated, awaiting sentencing, of which a date has not yet been set.
Charges resulted from the June 21, 1983, murders of El Paso couple Marine Capt. Robert and Cheryl Bravence at their campsite near Santiam Creek in the Summit Flat area. At the time, Robert was stationed at Fort Bliss, and Cheryl had just been hired as a second-grade special education teacher. The pair was murdered by Mark and his brother, Bryan, during the commission of a robbery, and their bodies were discovered by bowhunters that September. The brothers were tracked down through an investigation by the Idaho County Sheriff’s Office under then Sheriff Rodger Laughlin, in cooperation with the Liberty County Sheriff’s Office, and arrested at a remote ranch nearly 90 miles northeast of Houston, Texas.
“We’re extremely relieved, because we put all our heart and soul into this as families,” said Kerry Lehto, of Las Vegas, brother of Cheryl. He and siblings Judy Lehto of Woonsocket, R.I., Kevin Lehto of Green Bay, Wisc., and Robert’s brother, Andy Bravence, of Globe, Ariz., (who also testified) were present during the trial and verdict. “This is hard to sum up when you go through something like that, it’s such a different kind of experience. When we heard the verdict – and we’ve been through this before – and to have this come up it is such a shock.”
“The prosecutors and everyone who helped bring this verdict about were tireless,” he said. “They put everything into the trial so there is one less murderer roaming free.”
This makes the third trial for Lankford, his two prior convictions in this case being overturned. The first was overturned due to an error that occurred at his 1984 trial concerning improper jury instruction on how to handle accomplice testimony; he was re-tried in 2008 and convicted on both counts. That double-murder conviction was vacated by the Idaho Supreme Court in 2016. In that decision, the court stated Lankford was entitled to a new trial based on the state’s failure to disclose information regarding a leniency deal with an incarcerated witness.
On appeal, Bryan’s sentence was reduced to life in prison. Brian, 58, is currently incarcerated in Idaho State Correctional Center in Boise. Last year, the state parole commission denied his appeal; his next parole hearing is set for 2023.
In this latest trial, Mark’s story was much the same as in his 2008 defense: the robbery and murders were committed by Bryan, without Mark being present, and Mark helped Bryan in disposing of the bodies.
According to a Lewiston Tribune report, Canyon County Deputy Prosecutor Doug Robertson said Mark fabricated much of his motivations and created a timeline and story that kept him away from the scene when the murders occurred. Bryan’s testimony of hitting the couple with the butt of a shotgun and killing both with a rock didn’t match with forensic evidence from the bodies.
Also, in both trials, Bryan’s credibility was brought into question due to his changing testimony in the years since the murders, claiming responsibility and later blaming Mark.
Mark’s attorney, Sean Patrick Walsh, said Bryan was the only one guilty of murdering the Bravences, with Mark admitting to helping his brother after the fact. According to the Tribune, Walsh agreed that much of what Bryan said and testified to were lies, but an independent witness did reportedly see only one person at the campsite the night of the murders.
In comparison to previous trials, Lehto said in this case there was more emphasis on the possibility that Cheryl and Robert could have been alive following their beatings at the campground.
“The evidence certainly leaned that way,” he said. “A photo shown this time around, which I don’t believe was shown at previous trials, has Cheryl’s hand wrapped around a tree limb where the bodies were dumped. It can’t be proven she was alive and trying to grab the tree limb. But if that was the case, it shows another level of the true brutality of these crimes and how horrible a situation Cheryl and Rob went through.”
“It certainly seems that criminals have more rights than the victims and their families do,” Lehto said. It’s incredibly difficult to go through this kind of thing and see the pictures of two incredible, beautiful people crushed into hundreds of pieces., and know what they were going through was sheer terror for them. These trials and parole hearings and everything we have to go through with this brings up in us that elemental horror we have to relive each time, and it’s difficult. We do it for the memory of Cheryl and Rob, and keep doing what we need to do, as families, to make sure justice is done.”
Lehto also wanted to thank the people of Idaho County for their support during this continued ordeal. The family plans to attend Lankford’s sentencing, which he expects Lankford to appeal, but hopefully with less of the ordeal that has come before.
“Hopefully we can close this chapter,” he said.
Victims in the June 21, 1983, murders: Marine Capt. Robert and Cheryl Bravence