Recently, the West Virginia Supreme Court granted a writ of prohibition against a Kanawha County circuit court judge, Carrie Webster on the grounds that Judge Webster acted outside the bounds of her powers by excluding crucial evidence in a murder case. As a result, defendant David Washington Kinney was not convicted.
Kanawha County prosecutors had accused Webster of excluding 10 mm shell casings recovered by police at the scene of the crime. Police initially arrived at the scene to find the victim, Jeremy Parsons of Poca, slumped over in the passenger seat of his car, which had crashed into a barrier. The cause of death was later determined to be a gunshot wound. Yet Judge Webster instructed the State of West Virginia neither to mention nor elicit testimony at trial about the shell casings.
West Virginia criminal defense attorneys representing Kinney claimed that Judge Webster had acted properly to sanction discovery violations, under Rule 16(d)(2) of the state’s Rules of Criminal Procedure. Rule 16(d)(2) states: “If at any time during the course of the proceedings it is brought to the attention of the court that a party has failed to comply with this rule, the court may order such party to permit the discovery or inspection, grant a continuance, or prohibit the party from introducing evidence not disclosed, or it may enter such other order as it deems just under the circumstances.”
The State had admitted to misplacing the shell casings at the police lab because the casings were labeled under the defendant’s name rather than the victim’s. Prosecutors argued that even so, they did not act in bad faith, and by misinterpreting the sanctions rule, Judge Webster “gutted” their case. While the West Virginia Supreme Court found the State’s handling of shell casing evidence to be “troubling,” it sided with the prosecutors. In the 18-page decision, the Supreme Court found that Judge Webster had improperly analyzed the factors for imposing sanctions against the State as a party. The State’s conduct was not designed to avoid complying with the defendant’s discovery requests.
By vacating Judge Webster’s order suppressing the evidence, the Supreme Court has given the State the opportunity to correct a legal error, since it otherwise cannot appeal a criminal conviction.
Too many defendants are convicted on the basis or tainted or mishandled evidence. Therefore, we at the Wolfe Law Firm understand Kinney’s attorneys’ desire to stand firm and argue that the State should not be permitted to convict on the basis of such evidence. That said, if the mishandling were not material — and based on what is known, it appears that misplacing the shell casings did not fundamentally affect the evidence — it should still be admitted. The State has the right to make as complete a case as possible, just as the defendant has the right to full and competent representation. The State, as the prosecution, carries the heavier burden of showing that the defendant was guilty. In criminal cases, the State must prove this “beyond a reasonable doubt” — a higher burden of proof than required in a civil case, which simply requires “clear and convincing evidence” or “a preponderance of the evidence.” Because each criminal case holds a person’s freedom in its hands, it is important that each one gets the fundamentals right, especially admission of evidence.