Latest appeal to Edwards murder conviction blames defense lawyer; raises potential for new evidence

March 10, 2016, 6:45 a.m. ·

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If convicted killer Christopher Edwards gets a new trial in a 10-year-old murder case out of Omaha, one of his attorneys claims there is “significant evidence” which completely changes the narrative of the crime which led to his sentence of life in prison.

At the 2006 trial, prosecutors used the massive amount of blood found inside Edwards bedroom to make a convincing case that Edwards alone wielded a ceremonial sword to brutally murder one-time girlfriend Jessica O’Grady in his bedroom.

Defense attorneys Jerry Soucie and Brian Munnelly hope to, in the event of a new trial, block introduction of much of the blood evidence collected and processed by a discredited crime scene investigator.

In doing so Soucie says “the jury could get a fair assessment of, what I think would be, evidence that not only did Chris Edwards not participate in… a major bloodletting event, there is significant evidence (he) was not knowledgeable of what happened in that bedroom.”

While declining to add specifics, Soucie was theorizing another person was primarily responsible for killing O’Grady.

Edwards returned to the Nebraska Supreme Court on March 4, asking the seven justices return the case to Douglas County District Court for a new trial, claiming evidence may have been fabricated by former crime scene investigator David Kofoed.

(Watch the oral arguments in State v. Edwards. CLICK HERE)

Kofoed has already been implicated in planting or tampering with evidence in two other homicide investigations he supervised around the same time. Edwards’ attorneys claimed there are many red flags indicating Kofoed did the same in the bedroom crime scene.

In the most recent appeal the Supreme Court is not weighing new evidence. The court’s opinion, not due for several weeks, will focus on whether Edwards got a fair trial and effective service from his attorney.

In 2007 Edwards stood trial for murdering O’Grady. Prosecutors contended Edwards murdered and dismembered his former girlfriend in his bedroom, at least in part using a collectable ceremonial sword.

O’Grady’s body has never been found. At the time of the trial that forced investigators and prosecutors to build a case relying almost entirely on forensic evidence gathered and processed by the Douglas County Sheriff’s crime scene investigators, lead by Kofoed.

Christopher was found guilty by a jury and sentenced to life in prison.

In a 2009, the appeal the Supreme Court unanimously agreed the original trial provided sufficient evidence to determine O’Grady was murdered and to uphold the guilty verdict and life sentence.

Then came a new round of appeals rooted in the Kofoed affair.

“I think it is nothing more than a scandal of major proportions,” Soucie said in an interview with NET News.

The Nebraska attorney general, writing in a brief in support of the original guilty verdict, stated “the evidence of any fabrication of blood evidence is considerably underwhelming to the point of speculation.”

The state's brief went on to raise concerns about appeals stretching over 10 years and three appearances before the Supreme Court, writing that repeated and overlapping appeals had turned the legal process “into a never-ending rabbit hole.”

After a second appeal in 2012 the Supreme Court granted Edwards a new hearing to review claims of planted evidence.

Last year District Court Judge J. Russell Derr, who presided over the original trial, evaluated claims of fabricated evidence and ruled the suspicions did not warrant a new trial.

Two new attorneys retained by Edwards’ family returned to the Supreme Court for a new appeal. They raised fresh questions about the reliability of the evidence collected from the crime scene and the effectiveness of the defense counsel originally arguing the case.

During oral arguments before the justices, Soucie argued the lower court was wrong to deny a new trial.

“In this particular case it is undisputed that the lead individual in this entire case is a convicted felon who had planted evidence from two prior cases,” Soucie argued.

Central to the current appeal was the decision by Edwards' original attorney, Steve Lefler, to accept David Kofoed as a client when the former investigator fought allegations of planting evidence in other murder cases.

“At that point (Lefler) is actively working against the interests of Mr. Edwards,” argued Soucie, making the case representing both men would interfere with clear-headed preparations for the convicted murderer's appeal.

Soucie claims Lefler learned Kofoed was under suspicion by the Douglas County Sheriff and federal investigators while still representing Edwards. Ultimately the investigations would prove Kofoed planted blood evidence in a car tied to two men wrongly suspected of a double murder in Cass County. The scheme was only revealed when other evidence indisputedably led to the arrest and conviction of two other individuals.

In each of the suspect cases, Kofoed made seemingly amazing discoveries of blood evidence where, it was believed, obvious suspects had been implicated.

“The FBI says what (Kofoed) does didn't pass the smell test and yet Mr. Lefler continues with representing Mr. Kofoed,” Soucie told the justices.

While questioning Soucie, Justice Lindsey Miller-Lerman said the defense accusations could be summarized with a catchphrase made famous during the Watergate hearings in 1973.

“What did Lefler know and when did he know it?”

Soucie responded that in his opinion Lefler “knew it before” the end of the original trial but quickly added “I'm not going to say that. I can't prove on that.”

“What I do have proof on is in June of 2008” when Lefler was still prepping Edwards appeal of the original guilty verdict. Soucie says that timeline reveals the murder suspect's attorney was working closely with Steve Lefler.

“In other words,” Soucie says the original Edwards attorney had “an obligation to bring to the court as soon as possible any information as important as that.”

Lefler vigorously denied all these accusations during the district court hearing a year ago.

"These were two different cases,” Lefler told the court while under oath. “It never crossed my mind there would be a connection.”

Assistant Attorney General James Smith told the court the matter had been reviewed by the district court, which found “there wasn't any evidence to support a conflict of interest.”

As for the timing of Lefler’s choice to take on Kofoed’s case in 2008, Smith said the record reveals no actual overlap and thus, no impact on the effectiveness of Edwards representation at the original murder trial in 2006.

“It's really in the context of whether there was a conflict of what Lefler knew at the time of the trial,” Smith argued. “It's not talking about (immediately) after the trial's over. It's a year and a half later.”

Meanwhile, a challenge to another Kofoed case is slowly advancing in Cass County District Court. Ivan Henk pled guilty to killing Brandon Gonzalez, his four-year old son, in 2003.

Damning evidence introduced at another trial led a judge to rule blood evidence found in a dumpster near the murder scene had been placed there by Kofoed to strengthen the case against Henk. In the most recent Edwards’ Supreme Court brief, the Nebraska attorney general conceded “the evidence that Kofoed fabricated evidence” in two cases including Henk’s “was impressively overwhelming.”

That case is expected to be taken under advisement by Judge James Gleason by the end of the year.