David Valken-Leduc woke up in a prison cell Tuesday morning but slept in a real bed last night as a free man.
After serving five years in prison, Valken-Leduc was ordered to be released Tuesday because all attorneys involved agreed he did not get a fair trial in the Motel 6 shooting death of night clerk Matthew John Whicker in Woods Cross on Oct. 29, 1996.
Valken-Leduc, now 30, was convicted by a jury in 2004 of first-degree felony murder and was sentenced to six years to life in prison by 2nd District Judge Glen Dawson.
However, Dawson vacated the conviction Tuesday, and Valken-Leduc entered an Alford plea to second-degree felony manslaughter as part of a plea bargain. The judge put Valken-Leduc on probation for three years.
An Alford plea means a defendant acknowledges that prosecutors have enough evidence to convict him, but the individual is not admitting he committed the crime.
Elizabeth Hunt, the attorney for Valken-Leduc's appeal, said her client is simply happy to be free.
"He had a big smile" after the hearing, Hunt said.
Valken-Leduc "loves math," she said, and now plans to attend college to earn both undergraduate and master's degrees. He had been taking classes in prison and has qualified for a two-year associate degree, although he has not received it yet.
"A friend of his mother — who passed away after he was first charged — is in town and will help him get on his feet," Hunt said, adding that this family friend has provided Valken-Leduc a place to live. "He also has family members out of state he hopes to connect with."
Hunt said her client agreed to the plea to resolve the case but has never admitted any involvement in Whicker's slaying, which is why Hunt said she insisted on the Alford plea.
"It allowed him to get out of prison, which is a dangerous place to be, and the funding for education has dried up. His case on appeal has dragged on forever, through no fault of his own," she said.
Davis County Attorney Troy Rawlings said Hunt had raised several issues on appeal, including ineffective assistance of counsel.
Hunt had received affidavits from Valken-Leduc's original trial attorney, Aric Cramer, in which Cramer admitted he did not hire an investigator to go through all of the evidence available, did not call key witnesses that could have countered prosecution witnesses and failed to preserve certain legal issues for appeal — all of which might have produced a different outcome.
Rawlings said Matthew Whicker's widow, Katrina, and his parents, Ben and Rea, did not want to retry the case, which left Rawlings with the prospect of going through an appeal process in which Rawlings would be forced to defend the work of a defense lawyer who admitted he did a poor job.
"Was the trial done fairly and is the conviction reliable? No," Rawlings said. "I just didn't want to go down that unethical road."
In addition, the Utah Attorney General's Office decided it would be "prudent" to resolve the case with the manslaughter conviction on Valken-Leduc's record — but with no more prison time.
"I agonized over this because we're dealing with a murder conviction that has been set aside, but I made the call because the kid didn't get a fair trial," Rawlings said. "We have to take the criminal justice system seriously."
The original crime has been described as a robbery gone tragically wrong with group of young men seeking beer and marijuana money, but ending up with Whicker getting shot and dying in the motel lobby.
Whicker, 30, was working the graveyard shift to support himself, his wife and their two young children while he attended the University of Utah. He was a Gulf War veteran who spoke fluent Russian and also was a keen pilot who was busy earning his commercial pilot's license.
The Motel 6 case was long and convoluted, marked by multiple defendants, repeated delays, one court hearing after another, a hung jury in one situation, various plea bargains, a confession thrown out by the Utah Supreme Court and the sudden death of an expert forensic witness, Scott Spjut, who accidentally shot himself while inspecting a gun in 2003.
Throughout the ordeal, Whicker's parents have expressed a desire for justice, but not revenge.
Rea Whicker, the victim's mother, said Tuesday evening that she and her family were not happy with the decision in Valken-Leduc's case, but they understood why the judge ruled as he did.
As for Valken-Leduc, "We hope he will prove himself worthy of this second chance," she said. "We hope that his future will prove that this was the right thing to do."
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