ROCHESTER — A dissenting judge in Friday’s appeal ruling against Gary Thibodeau argued Thibodeau showed “by a preponderance of evidence” that he deserved a new trial in the Heidi Allen kidnapping case.
Judge John Centra of the state Supreme Court Appellate Division, Fourth Department, wrote that Thibodeau met the required burden establishing there was newly discovered exculpatory evidence that could upend Thibodeau’s 1995 conviction of kidnapping the 18-year-old Allen.
Thibodeau’s attorneys have maintained for years that three men — James Steen, Roger Breckenridge and Michael Bohrer — admitted involvement to multiple witnesses and could have had a drug-related motive to cause Allen harm.
All three have denied any involvement in Allen’s disappearance.
While the majority sided with prosecutors and Oswego County Judge Daniel King — who upheld Thibodeau’s conviction last year — Centra said the defense had credible eyewitness testimony demonstrating another man may have committed the crime, paired with a host of “independent confessions” by other alleged suspects corroborated by several witnesses.
“This is not a case where there was just one off-hand remark about Heidi’s abduction,” Centra wrote in his dissent. “I conclude that the sheer number of independent confessions provided additional corroboration for each.”
Asked about Friday’s appellate ruling, Thibodeau’s attorney Lisa Peebles said she was “very pleased with the dissenting opinion.”
Peebles has noted she plans to take Thibodeau’s case to the state Court of Appeals, saying “onward and upward” Friday and adding she hoped Thibodeau’s health maintained throughout the process.
Oswego County District Attorney Greg Oakes said Friday that he has the utmost respect for Centra but disagreed with how he reviewed the case.
“I believe the majority reached the right analysis in balancing all the evidence and looking at the appropriate legal standards for admissibility,” Oakes said. “We clearly disagree with (Centra’s) decision and disagree with his analysis.”
Oakes added that while much of the defense’s alleged new evidence “might seem compelling to someone in the news … it’s speculation, it’s hearsay, rumor … not the basis to overturn a rightfully earned conviction that a jury decided.”
But Centra, in a dissent Peebles will highlight when she seeks leave to appeal with the higher court, argued “a new trial should be granted based simply on the totality of the new evidence introduced at the hearing.”
While Centra was not convinced by defense arguments that authorities suppressed evidence of Allen’s status as a drug informant, he argued that no witness and no evidence could “credibly place” Thibodeau at the scene of the crime.
Centra gave particular credence to the testimony of William Pierce, who came forward to authorities and originally said it was Thibodeau he’d seen abduct Allen from a New Haven convenience store in 1994, but later told authorities he believed it was Steen, a convicted murderer.
“I conclude that the court erred in rejecting Pierce’s testimony as not credible,” Centra wrote. “Unlike some of the other witnesses at the hearing, Pierce did not come forward after the renewed media coverage in 2014 to implicate Steen, Breckenridge or Bohrer.”
Rather, Pierce had come forward to say he saw Thibodeau, until “he realized he made a mistake” after seeing Steen’s photograph in a newspaper, Centra noted.
“Some aspects of Pierce’s description of the events he saw that morning were questionable,” Centra acknowledged.
But he added that another eyewitness account, from Christopher Bivens, was “not very convincing” in placing Richard Thibodeau’s van at the scene of Allen’s abduction during the original trial.
While Richard Thibodeau acknowledged he went to the convenience store where Allen worked the morning she was abducted, hearing evidence showed “there may have been another van at the store that morning,” according to Centra.
Richard Thibodeau was acquitted in a separate 1995 trial.
“Even setting aside Pierce’s identification of Steen as the perpetrator, Pierce also testified that the white van he saw that morning was not Richard’s van,” Centra wrote.
As to testimony that prosecutors — and many judges — have ruled is nothing more than inadmissible hearsay, Centra argued at least three witnesses’ testimony implicating the three other men “would be admissible at trial.”
One of those witnesses, Tonya Priest, told authorities in 2013 that Steen said he, Breckenridge and Bohrer kidnapped Allen over a drug deal and used Bohrer’s white van, a story that appeared to be corroborated or implied by several other witnesses, Centra noted.
Centra connected hearing testimony noting Bohrer at one point had a white van; that Steen, Breckenridge and Bohrer all worked for or did business with a junkyard operator; and that Steen hauled scrap for the operator to Canada.
But Oakes Friday tried to dismantle the notion any reliable links could be drawn from Priest’s shifting statements to authorities.
As the case gained media attention, Oakes said, Priest added layers to her story, alleging she heard admissions not only from Steen but from Breckenridge and Bohrer.
He also pointed to the defense’s unwillingness to put Priest on the stand during the 2015 hearing.
“If I was an attorney and I believed this witness and I thought she had compelling evidence to exonerate my client, she’d be my first witness that I’d put on the stand,” said Oakes.
The district attorney also argued Steen, Breckenridge and Bohrer “may have made sick jokes” about the Allen case to several witnesses and “tried to make themselves bigger than what they are.”
Both sides said they would soon prepare their cases for further court appeals.