The two defendants in a Pine Ridge murder case are essentially back at square one after a federal judge invalidated their guilty pleas.
Elizabeth LeBeau and her then-live-in boyfriend Fred Quiver pleaded guilty to charges related to the killing of 24-year-old Emily Bluebird in January 2016. In their accounts of the incident, each defendant pointed to the other as the person who strangled Bluebird with an electronics cord — accounts that were both affirmed in court by federal prosecutors.
The chief judge of the South Dakota District Court, Jeffrey Viken, nullified the pleas in an order released Friday. He immediately scheduled both defendants for a jury trial at the Rapid City federal courthouse on Aug. 22.
Viken said neither plea satisfies this federal rule of criminal procedure: Before entering judgment on a guilty plea, the court must determine that there is a factual basis for the plea.
An adequate factual basis exists, Viken wrote, when the record contains “sufficient evidence at the time of the plea upon which a court may reasonably determine that the defendant likely committed the offense.”
LeBeau, 24, said she held down Bluebird’s hands at Quiver’s order while he strangled Bluebird after the two got into an argument while all of them were drinking at the couple’s home on Pine Ridge. LeBeau pleaded guilty to second-degree murder, punishable by up to life in prison.
Quiver, 31, on the other hand, said LeBeau strangled Bluebird following an argument between the women. Quiver, who said he tried to intervene without success, pleaded guilty to being an accessory to second-degree murder, which carries a 15-year maximum sentence.
Because the U.S. Attorney’s Office affirmed the defendants' conflicting statements, the judge said the court does not have enough facts to find them guilty of the crimes to which they admitted. Viken said there's doubt whether LeBeau killed Bluebird since she lay the blame on Quiver, the same statement that puts into question whether Quiver merely served as an accessory to murder.
He said the contradicting accounts cannot be viewed in isolation, as the U.S. Attorney’s Office requested, since they involve the core facts of the case.
“The circumstances may be different had the prosecutor not signed the statements,” Viken wrote.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office for South Dakota declined to comment on the ruling, citing the ongoing cases.
Viken called a hearing on the issue last month after LeBeau’s lawyer drew the court’s attention to the conflicting factual basis statements, which the lawyer said exposed his client to harsher punishment for an offense in which she purportedly played a secondary role.
Viken said the issue was the first of its kind he has encountered in his 40 years in the legal system.
Bluebird’s body was found near a creek on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation a few weeks after her murder. LeBeau and Quiver admitted hiding her body underneath their home before moving it outdoors.
The defendants, both detained at the Pennington County Jail, may again end up pleading guilty. The court has given them an initial deadline of Aug. 4 to hammer out another plea agreement with the prosecutors.