(Second in a series on crime and punishment)
LINDA FIORENTINO IS A DAY OLDER than Sharon Stone, fifty days before Michelle Pfeiffer and seventy ahead of me, so I think of us as the fearsome foursome of modern creativity. Although those girls need a lot more makeup than I do to look as good, I am nothing if not inclusive. So I must rise to Linda’s defense against a weird wave of unsought publicity resulting from a misguided prosecution.
Last week a jury voted to convict Mechele Linehan nee Hughes of conspiring to murder her fiancee, a Mr. Leppink, over ten years ago in a secluded shack in Alaska. This comes a few months after her ex-boyfriend, John Carlin III, was convicted for being the triggerman. The district attorney convinced the jury that she was inspired by the character Linda Fiorentino played in the 1994 movie, The Last Seduction. The problem is that there is insufficient evidence to implicate Mechele, there is insufficient evidence to implicate Carlin, and the killing does not really imitate the movie.
Mechele Hughes was a stripper in small-town Alaska, a place with more men than women, where most of those men and women are looking to escape their pasts in a remote outpost. What we have here, my literary friends, is the setting of a Bret Harte story. Leppink is a fellow who embezzled a hundred thousand dollars from his wealthy family’s grocery chain in Missouri. Carlin is a divorced loner with a young son who earns his keep on the months-long Alaskan fishing runs. Hughes herself ran from her divorced mother in Louisiana to being a teen model with a middle-aged boyfriend in New York to this fortress of edgy solitude.
All these lonely conflicted men plied her with cash and gifts. She may have been physical with some, merely flirtatious with others. Eventually she had about four major boyfriends who all knew each other. She accepted more than one marriage proposal in a manipulative juggling act. Leppink thought she was marrying him but he also suspected she might kill him, so he removed her as beneficiary of his million-dollar life insurance policy. He also sent a letter to his estranged parents, saying that if he is found dead they should have the police investigate his fiancee.
Two days later Leppink was killed at this out-of-the-way shack. There is no proof that Carlin was ever there. There is certainly no proof that Hughes told or encouraged Carlin to do anything. No gun was found. All that is known is that Carlin once owned a gun of the same model, not that common a weapon, and he lied about it when first asked. And Carlin’s son, now an adult, testified he saw his father washing blood off a gun while Mechele watched.
Having a son testify against his father is wrong, not to mention highly unreliable. In the end, a man is convicted of a killing based on his son seeing him wash a gun. A woman is convicted of instigating it based on watching him clean the pistol, and on the fact that she liked a movie about a woman who convinced a lover to kill her husband for money. The assumption is that she did not know Leppink had taken her off the insurance, although Carlin claims he drove Leppink to the lawyer to make the change of beneficiary.
None of the news accounts mentions that the movie plot included a deception by which the boyfriend had no idea he was killing a husband. Here everyone knew everyone, Carlin says he knew there was no insurance money and no one saw or heard Hughes plotting murder. Even if it is unlikely that a stranger did it, considering the timing, it is just as possible that Carlin or another suitor killed Leppink on their own, to please her or to eliminate a rival. Should Jodie Foster be arraigned as a conspirator in shooting President Reagan, since the assassin did it to impress her?
The reason for the convictions is simple. If you lie down with dogs you get up with fleas. The jurors hear about strippers, multiple boyfriends, overlapping fiancees, guns, embezzlers, every sordid and squalid behavior imaginable; they just shrug and throw away the key. In case her new life as a doctor’s wife and PTA mother might have swayed them, prosecutors hinted she had an affair with another doctor while her husband served in Iraq last year.
Here, then, is a case of an all-too-common phenomenon. Prejudicial sentencing, guilt by association, and getting punished for being naughty whether or not you are guilty of the larger crime. Not to mention projecting from enjoying a movie to actually killing a person. Don’t these people understand art? Come on, Linda, Sharon, Michelle, we’re done here: let’s go get a drink.
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