LISTEN: Richard Bingham was acquitted in murder cold case, but accusation clouded his life – until now

In a black and white photo, Richard Bingham walks towards a chair as a woman whose back is turned pulls ist out.
Richard Bingham (r.) enters the courthouse in Sitka for his 1996 arraignment on rape and murder charges in the death of 17-year old Jessica Baggen. Although he was acquitted of the crime, suspicion continued to follow him until new DNA evidence this year pointed investigators to the likely perpetrator. (Daily Sitka Sentinel photo/Reber Stein)

Twenty-four years after he faced trial for a murder he did not commit, Richard Bingham feels entitled to compensation.

KCAW’s Robert Woolsey recently spoke with the man who, although he was acquitted in the death of 17-year old Jessica Baggen in 1996, was never fully exonerated until cold case investigator found the likely killer this summer.

Richard Bingham is not the easiest person to reach. His life over the past two decades has been difficult. But he finally agreed to speak to me from his home in Washington state.

Bingham – Hello?

KCAW – Hi, Richard?

Bingham – Yes.

KCAW – Hi, it’s Robert Woolsey at KCAW in Sitka. How are you doing?

Bingham – I’m doing fine, I guess.

The Alaska Bureau of Investigation in early August broke the case in the death of Jessica Baggen, a young Sitka woman who was killed in 1996 while walking home from her 17th birthday party. New DNA research led investigators to a 66-year old former Sitka man — Steve Allen Branch — who had moved to Arkansas, and who took his own life within a half-hour after being interviewed by police.

Alaska Department of Public Safety Commissioner Amanda Price stands alongside photos of Jessica Baggen taken at her 17th birthday party in 1996. One of Alaska’s most notorious cold cases, Baggen’s murder was solved this summer when new a new method of “genetic geneaology” led investigators to 66-year old Steve Allen Branch, a former Sitkan who had relocated to Arkansas. (DPS image)

No one bothered to let Bingham know that the case had been solved.

KCAW – How did you find out that they had finally found the guy who did it?

Bingham – Through the grapevine. My dad called my brother, and my brother called me.

KCAW – And how did you feel when you heard that news?

Bingham – Pissed off, relieved. Whatever you want to call it. I told them that for 25 years, yet they sent private investigators and state troopers down here to harass my friends, asking questions and things like that. 

Bingham is 59 years old now, retired and dealing with MS and other health problems. He’s made his living working in temporary services. Twenty-four years ago he was employed at Sheldon Jackson College, near the scene of Jessica’s murder. He had been a student there — Class of ‘81 — but never advanced beyond his sophomore year.

Bingham — for reasons that may never be fully understood — confessed to the crime. But it didn’t take long at trial for his public defender to prove that the confession had been coerced, and that no physical evidence whatsoever tied Bingham to the events of the evening.

Still, he says a cloud of suspicion continued to follow him, even after he moved out of town.

KCAW – Did you ever come back to Sitka after the trial?

Bingham – Nope. I figured there would be people there ready to shoot me.

Bingham says he’s paid a steep price for his misadventure. Both he and his brother relocated after the trial. He also lost his home, among other things.

Bingham – It cost me my job. And my boat — it wasn’t a very good boat — still it was towed to the dump. I lost everything I owned.

It is those losses that Bingham now feels entitled to compensation for. He doesn’t want to fight; he’d just like to be paid.

Bingham – Anyhow, I’m done talking. I’m pretty disgusted. I sure wish somebody would call me up and find a lawyer for me. They can settle out of court, and I’d be happy.

As we wrap up the call, Bingham hits this point again. He’s not talking to the media in order to win an apology.

Bingham – Put that in there too that I’d rather settle out of court than have to sue them.

KCAW – Yeah, I’ll mention that.

Bingham – Maybe I can get somebody to make me an offer.

KCAW – All right. We’ll see what happens.

Bingham – Thanks.

KCAW – Thank you, Richard.

Bingham – Have a nice day.

KCAW – You too.