A man accused of killing a Navy shipmate in the Philippines in 1968 pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of voluntary manslaughter Thursday.
The case against Michael E. LeBrun, 60, of Greenwood, Mo., developed after the slain man's sister pressed the Navy to reopen the case. Investigators originally concluded that the victim stole money from the ship and deserted.
LeBrun had been charged with first-degree murder and his federal trial was scheduled to start Monday. He could have faced life in prison without parole if convicted on that charge, but his plea agreement calls for a sentence of up to 10 years.
Navy Ensign Andrew L. Muns, 24, disappeared in January 1968 while the USS Cacapon was anchored at Subic Bay in the Philippines. About $8,600 was discovered to be missing from the ship's disbursement office, and the Navy decided that Muns, the ship's payroll officer, must have taken the money and deserted.
Case closed for 30 years
Thirty years later, Muns' sister persuaded the cold-case unit of the Naval Criminal Investigation Service to take another look, and the new investigation led them to LeBrun in 2000.
"Both parents and a brother died being told their son was a thief and a quitter," U.S. Attorney Todd Graves said after the hearing. "The honor of Ensign Muns is restored today."
LeBrun, who was a supply clerk on the ship, had sought to keep the government from using a statement in which he told the investigators that he strangled Muns after the ensign caught him stealing money from a safe. He said he put the body and the money inside a tank of fuel oil.
Last week, U.S. District Judge Dean Whipple ruled the videotaped statement could be used as evidence, saying he was satisfied that prosecutors had enough evidence to independently corroborate it.
LeBrun's attorney, Glenn E. Bradford contends the confession "was not a voluntary confession."
"We took that as far as we could possibly go," he said.
Defendant's rights violated
The statement became a contentious issue because the investigators did not advise LeBrun of his Miranda rights after asking him for a voluntary statement. Court records show they promised he would not be prosecuted if he confessed to manslaughter, because the statute of limitations on that crime had expired.
After two federal judges in Kansas City ruled investigators coerced the confession and violated LeBrun's rights, a three-judge appeals panel ruled the confession could not be used.
After hearing arguments in 2003, the full 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the confession was admissible, and the U.S. Supreme Court later declined to take the case.