Richmond Times-Dispatch

Published: March 01, 2012

Verdict tossed in Culpeper '96 death
By Frank Green

Michael Wayne Hash
Michael Wayne Hash
Citing police and prosecutorial misconduct, a federal judge has tossed out a 2001 capital murder conviction against Michael Wayne Hash in Culpeper County.

U.S. District Judge James C. Turk gave authorities six months to retry Hash or set him free. Turk, who sits in Roanoke, also found that Hash's defense lawyers did not perform up to constitutionally acceptable standards.

Hash was convicted of capital murder in the 1996 slaying of 74-year-old Thelma B. Scroggins. Hash was 15 years old at the time of the slaying.

It is the second Virginia capital murder conviction tossed out by a federal judge in part for prosecutorial misconduct in less than a year. In July, the conviction and death sentence imposed on Justin Wolfe in Prince William County were vacated.

"Hash's case, if anything, is stronger than" Wolfe's, Turk wrote about one of Hash's claims in the judge's 64-page opinion released Tuesday.

"Having reviewed the voluminous record in this case, the court is disturbed by the miscarriage of justice that occurred in this case and finds that Hash's trial is an example of an 'extreme malfunction in the state criminal justice system,' " Turk concluded.

In both cases, the federal judges ruled that prosecutors improperly concealed evidence that could have helped the defense and used testimony they knew was false.

Gary L. Close, the commonwealth's attorney for Culpeper County, did not respond to requests for comment Wednesday. The Virginia Attorney General's Office declined to comment Wednesday, citing the possibility of future litigation.

Matthew Bosher, a Richmond lawyer and partner at Hunton & Williams who represented Hash, said, "We are thrilled that our client has finally been exonerated."

"There has never been any credible evidence that Mr. Hash had anything to do with this crime," Bosher said. "He spent the last 12 years — his entire adult life — in prison for a crime he did not commit because the system completely failed him."

Shawn Armbrust, executive director of the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project, said, "The court's opinion validates what our client, his family, and his legal team have said from the beginning — that Mike Hash did not commit this crime and that the tactics used to obtain his conviction were reprehensible.

"We hope the Culpeper authorities will now do the right thing and decide not to retry Mike, so he can go home to his family as quickly as possible," she said.

Scroggins was slain in her Lignum home in July 1996. She suffered four gunshot wounds in her head, three on the left side and one to the back of her head — all fired from a .22-caliber weapon.

The DNA at the scene matched the victim, and no match was ever made of five fingerprints recovered by authorities.

Hash, who denied any involvement in the crimes, was convicted of capital murder on Feb. 9, 2001, and sentenced to life in prison without possibility of parole.

Three people were charged with the slaying. Jason Kolby was tried and acquitted, and Eric Weakley pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and testified against Hash.

The prosecution had no physical evidence linking Hash to the crime and relied on the testimony of three key witnesses to prove the case: an eyewitness, Weakley; Hash's cousin, Alesia Shelton; and Paul Carter, a jailhouse informant.

Weakley, however, later recanted his statements implicating Hash and said all the details he knew about the slaying were given to him by Culpeper authorities.

According to Turk, prosecutors failed to disclose an agreement with Weakley in exchange for his testimony. Both Weakley and Shelton failed polygraph examinations, but Hash's trial lawyers were not told.

Matthew Engle, with the University of Virginia Innocence Project Clinic, represents Weakley and says he will seek a pardon from Gov. Bob McDonnell this spring.

Weakley was sentenced to 20 years with 13 years and four months suspended. He served six years and eight months before he was released, said Engle.

Carter testified that while he was being held at the Albemarle-Charlottesville Regional Jail where Hash was also being held, Hash admitted he committed the crime and offered details such as the caliber of the weapon.

On cross-examination, Carter said he had assisted prosecutors on only one other occasion. After the trial, it was learned Carter had implicated at least 20 people in three different federal prosecutions — something his defense lawyers failed to discover.

Carter also testified that it was his understanding that his testimony in the state trial of Hash would not help him with pending charges in federal court.

After the trial, Hash's new lawyers discovered 25 letters written by Carter to a federal judge concerning a motion to have his sentence reduced in light of his testimony at Hash's state trial — directly contradicting Carter's testimony.

Five of the letters were written before Carter testified against Hash.

Turk wrote that Hash had proved that the prosecutor's "failure to disclose the agreement and subsequent bolstering of Carter's false testimony violated Hash's due process rights."

As for the inadequacy of Hash's trial lawyers, Turk ruled that they failed to investigate Carter's federal file and thus turn up the letters he wrote that show a powerful motive for Carter to fabricate his testimony. He also said Hash's lawyers failed to conduct an independent investigation into an alternative theory of the crime, for which there was evidence.

Turk cited an affidavit from Scott H. Jenkins, a former investigator and now the Culpeper County sheriff, who said: "I have very serious concerns about the conviction of Mike Hash."

"Based on the evidence at the crime scene, I believe it is highly unlikely that three teenage boys murdered Mrs. Scroggins," said Jenkins in his statement. Jenkins did not return calls Wednesday.

Turk wrote, "Considering the cavalcade of evidence that Hash has come forward with demonstrating police and prosecutorial misconduct, which stands largely uncontested … Hash has made a sufficient showing of misconduct to find the investigation violated his due process rights and warrants relief."

Visit Mike's website at Justice for Michael W. Hash.

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