Murder Conviction Overturned in Nez Perce County
Marisa Lloyd

Murder Conviction Overturned in Nez Perce County

Nez Perce County

LEWISTON - Leotis B. Branigh III, an individual who was sentenced to life in prison without parole for First Degree Murder in 2009, is now seeing his conviction overturned, with a new trial on the way. 

Branigh, of Clarkston, fatally shot Michael S. Johnston, of Lewiston, outside of his home in the Orchards, on October 1, 2007. 

Initially, William Fitzgerald and Robert Van Idour represented Branigh. However, after one of their clients was subpoenaed to be a witness, they filed a motion to withdraw. Charles Kovis was appointed as a counselor after, however, after a disagreement during the trial, Branigh decided to represent himself. 

Throughout the trial, the prosecutors worked to prove Branigh planned to murder Johnston for his relationship with Desiree Anderson, Branigh's ex-wife. The prosecutors stated text messages Branigh sent to Johnston and Anderson leading up to the shooting, became increasingly threatening. Anderson eventually applied for a protection order just hours before the shooting occurred. 

On December 15, 2016, Branigh submitted an amended petition for post-conviction relief, which included claims of ineffective assistance of counsel related to Kovis's representation prior to Branigh's decision to represent himself. 

Following the submission of Branigh's amended petition, the State renewed their previously filed motion for summary disposition from Branigh's previous petition for post-conviction, however, it did not address the newly raised ineffective assistance claims. 

Branigh appealed the order granting summary disposition asserting this Court erred in failing to provide the necessary 20-day notice of intent to dismiss the claims unaddressed by the State in its renewed motion for summary disposition. 

The State then submitted a Motion for Remand and to Suspend Appellate Proceedings in relation to those claims, which the Supreme Court of Idaho granted on June 29, 2018. Shortly after this motion, Kovis passed away.

At the evidentiary hearing on the additional claims in the amended petition, Branigh called five witnesses including himself to testify. In his testimony, Branigh stated he believed that he and Kovis were in agreement on the need to file certain motions Branigh had requested, as well as the overall trial strategy. However, as the case went on Kovis did not file some of these motions. Branigh also claimed there were supposed to meet prior to the trial to go over witness testimony and questions, however, that meeting never occurred. 

On the morning of December 8, Branigh expressed to Kovis his belief that Kovis was unprepared for trial leading to Branigh deciding to represent himself. 

"A claim of ineffective assistance of counsel may properly be brought under the Uniform Post-Conviction Procedure Act. To Prevail on ineffective assistance of counsel claim, the petitioner must show that the attorney's performance was deficient and that the petitioner was prejudiced by the deficiency." Passons v. State 

The Court stated Branigh's unrebutted assertions established error in his counsel's representation. Additionally, the Court finds that the error resulted in sufficient prejudice to Branigh to undermine confidence in the outcome of his trial. Branigh met his burden of establishing counsel's representation was ineffective and was granted his petition resulting in a new trial. 

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