BOISE, Idaho (AP) — The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Wednesday reversed the death sentence of a man convicted of brutally slaying a former co-worker because the state allowed a jailhouse informant to lie on the witness stand.
Lacey Mark Sivak was sentenced to death for the 1981 murder of Dixie Wilson at the Baird Oil gas station in Garden City. The appellate court said that while his conviction was appropriate, the outcome of his sentencing hearing might have been different if prosecutors hadn't knowingly presented the testimony of an inmate who perjured himself.
Sivak's attorney, Bruce Livingston with the Federal Defender Services of Idaho, said the false testimony was at the heart of the case.
"The court ruling underscores how unreliable prison snitches can be. What's particularly troubling — outrageous — in this case is that prosecutors knew the inmate was lying and hid the truth as they sought an execution of Mr. Sivak," Livingston said.
Former Ada County prosecutor Jim Harris, who handled Sivak's murder trial, said he hadn't seen the ruling yet and couldn't immediately comment.
The appellate court said state attorneys could decide to hold a new sentencing hearing if they still want to seek the death penalty for Sivak's crimes. The court also noted that the other man accused of the crimes, Randall Bainbridge, had been sentenced to life in prison for the same killing.
According to court records, Dixie Wilson, a 30-year-old mother of three children, was killed on April 6, 1981, when she was shot at least five times in the head and face and stabbed approximately 20 times in the head, neck and shoulder. She was also molested by her assailants.
Prosecutors said Sivak and Bainbridge committed the murder — Sivak because he believed she had gotten him fired from the gas station, and his friend because he was sexually motivated.
Roughly $385 was missing from the gas station's cash drawer and safe, and Sivak was charged with robbery as well.
The two men were tried separately.
In Sivak's trial, the only direct evidence establishing that he — and not Bainbridge — committed the murder came from Bainbridge's unsworn statement during a police interrogation and from two jailhouse informants, according to the appellate court's ruling.
But one of the jailhouse informants acknowledged on the stand that he was a habitual liar, and the other lied about his motives for testifying, saying he didn't expect to get preferential treatment from the state on his own criminal cases.
One of the inmates, Jimmy Leytham, said that while in jail, Sivak confessed to murdering Wilson.
Sivak said he stabbed and shot Wilson multiple times, Leytham said, "because she kept on moving" and that he threw the handle of the knife — which broke during the stabbing — into a river.
Leytham had previously been convicted of burglary and insufficient funds and was facing another burglary charge at the time of his testimony. In exchange for his testimony against Sivak and another man accused of murder in a separate case, he was given money, released from prison on parole and his pending charge was dismissed, according to court records.
During the appeals process, Sivak later discovered letters detailing the agreements between former Ada County prosecutor Jim Harris, former Ada County Sheriff Vaughn Killeen, and Leytham.
If presented in court, that evidence could have impeached Leytham, the appellate court said, and also could have changed the outcome of his sentencing.
Another inmate, Duane Grierson, testified that Sivak admitted that both he and Bainbridge killed Wilson and gave details about the sexual nature of the crime. Grierson said Sivak was willing to share his version of events with him because Grierson had already testified against Bainbridge.
Grierson initially denied he testified in hopes of being treated favorably by prosecutors, but later wrote an affidavit for his sentencing judge in which he said he was promised deals by the prosecuting attorney's office. That deal meant he would be sent to a county jail instead of prison as long as he testified in court in certain murder cases, he claimed.
Sivak, now 52, is the longest-serving inmate on death row and has filed dozens of appeals and petitions over the past three decades. At least three earlier death sentences have been vacated on technical grounds.
At least one of those cases got far enough to merit an execution date: Sivak was briefly sentenced to die by firing squad on Jan. 31, 1984, but the Idaho Supreme Court granted a stay so that the U.S. Supreme Court could review the case.
Idaho Deputy Attorney General LaMont Anderson said his office was considering whether to ask the 9th Circuit for a full review by 11 judges. The latest ruling was handed down by a three-judge panel of the court.
The state also has the option to ask the Supreme Court to hear the case, or to send it back to Ada County for the current prosecutor, Greg Bower, to decide if he will seek the death penalty again.