Scott case: Investigator ‘knew from day one he was innocent’
By Brian M. Boyce and John D. Wright
TERRE HAUTE— Four months after his March 1985 trial and conviction for the murder of Loretta Keith, David L. Scott asked for a new trial based on newly discovered evidence.
Scott had confessed to the killing in a secretly recorded conversation played at trial, but his public defender, Larry Wagner, had new evidence he thought implicated a different man.
That new evidence had been given by Thomas Abram, a 22-year-old West Terre Haute man.
Weeks said he drove Kevin Mark Weeks to Keith’s home in West Terre Haute on the night she was killed, watched him go inside, heard a struggle and screaming, watched Weeks emerge from the home and then drove off with him. Abram made no mention of Scott being present.
Judge Michael Eldred granted a hearing on the request for a new trial for Scott. Wagner took Abram’s statement and presented it in the hearing, but the judge denied Scott a new trial.
Scott wound up serving 23 years and four months in prison until DNA evidence led to Weeks’ arrest last week for allegedly killing Keith — and Scott’s freedom from prison on Monday.
Eldred said Monday he does not remember the reasons why he did not grant a new trial, nor does he recall any of the details from the post-trial hearing 22 1/2 years ago.
“It was an extremely brutal murder, and he had a detailed confession,” Eldred said Monday about Scott, “but if he’s not involved, as it appears is the case, then the justice system failed him, and as a part of it, I’m terribly sorry.”
Keith, 89, was bludgeoned with an iron bar during a burglary inside her home. Shortly after her death and during the police investigation, Clifford “Sonny” Allison approached police, saying he had information about who killed Keith. Police then secretly taped a conversation between Allison and Scott, during which Scott admitted killing Keith in detail, saying he did it to steal $25,000 he thought she had stashed in the house. Scott cried during the “confession.”
The prosecution played the taped confession at trial. In his trial, Scott contended that he made up the entire confession as a way to impress his friend, Allison. But the jury believed what they heard on the tape, instead.
A few months later, Sam Mail, then-investigator for the Vigo County Public Defender’s office, took the recorded statement from Abram naming Weeks as the murderer.
Abram said in his statement that by coming forth with the information, he was hoping to get a break on check-deception charges pending against him.
When that information came out in the hearing for a new trial, Vigo County Prosecutor Eric Abel noted that Scott had confessed in vivid detail.
“Now after that, the defense comes up with an unsigned, unsworn statement by some check-deception artist saying that a ‘Mark Weeks’ committed the crime. Abel also noted that Abram did not know Weeks’ whereabouts “except somewhere in Kentucky.”
Abram could not be located for comment Monday.
Further harming Abram’s credibility in the July 1985 hearing was a watch he presented that he said Weeks took from Keith’s home. Abel told the judge in the hearing that five members of the Keith family had looked at the watch and could not identify it as belonging to Loretta Keith.
Eldred denied the new trial, and two years later, the Indiana Supreme Court upheld the judge’s ruling, saying they agreed a new trial was not justified.
Reflecting on the case, Mail said Monday he felt disgust and frustration in what he knew then to be the wrongful sentencing.
“I knew from day one that he was innocent,” he said, referring to Scott.
Mail, who had worked at the Vigo County Sheriff’s Department for three years before six years with the public defender’s office, said he was accused of “rocking the boat” and being a “crackpot” for bringing up Abram’s statement.
Mail remembers banging on doors with the information everywhere from the public defender’s office to the prosecutor’s office to the State Police. What Mail perceived as a cool reaction to the new evidence eventually frustrated him enough to resign.
Abel had represented the prosecution in the hearing for the new trial, but it was then-deputy prosecutor James Bopp Jr. who tried the case.
Bopp said Monday that he didn’t remember the specifics of the case and said he was unaware of Scott’s release and Weeks’ arrest.
“If all that’s true, it’s very tragic,” he said.
Mail credited the persistence of Scott’s sister, Carol Smith, as what eventually saved Scott.
“I hope David Scott sues the pants off the state of Indiana,” Mail said, adding that “everyone in this world deserves a sister like Carol Smith, because she never gave up.”
“There’s been a travesty here,” he said, noting that he has grieved over Scott’s case.
“In the bottom of my heart, I know I did my job,” he said, noting that it just wasn’t enough to keep an innocent man out of prison for nearly 24 years.
Retired Vigo County judge Charles McCrory, who had no connection to the Scott case at any stage, responded to a question about the case with a remark about the fallibility of the justice system.
Wrongful imprisonment does occur, he said.
“That happens. Even with all of our safeguards,” he said.
Brian Boyce can be reached at (812) 231-4253 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
||Truth in Justice