As murder conviction tossed after 12 years, Va. family hopes son will be home soon

A couple of weeks ago, Pam and Jeff Hash began moving file cabinets full of legal documents into the garage and bringing their son’s clothing back inside. They hung his shirts in the closet and arranged his caps; one camo, one Earnhardt, one with a fishing hook on the brim.

They have always kept a room for him, through 12 years of imprisonment and trials and appeals, never questioning that he would be cleared soon and come home.

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But a couple of weeks ago, they went further. They took the desk where his mother had pored over court transcripts and moved it out of the office. They unpacked the stuffed gorillas he had won at county fairs and all the other things they had put away carefully after police pounded on the door in the middle of the night May 16, 2000, and told Michael Wayne Hash he was charged with murdering an elderly neighbor.

He was 15 when Thelma Scroggins was shot four times in the head at her home in Culpeper County.

He was 19 when he was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to life without parole.

Last week, a judge threw out his 2001 conviction, with a strongly worded opinion that there had been a miscarriage of justice with extensive police and prosecutorial misconduct. U.S. District Judge James Turk gave officials six months to either try Hash again or set him free.

The attorney general will not appeal the ruling, according to a spokesman, and did not have any comment on the case. The special prosecutor just appointed and beginning to review the files said it was premature to discuss the case at this point.

So the Hashes are waiting. And arranging the books in their son’s room so that everything is perfect when he comes home.

From prison last month, Hash, who is now 31, told his parents they were going to get let down again.

“We said, ‘No, Mike, we’re not jumping the gun,’ ” Jeff Hash said. “That exit sign is getting closer and closer.”

‘Never did I doubt him’

Pam and Jeff Hash started dating when they were 13, two kids playing in their Manassas neighborhood. They were married when they were 16. He worked in construction, and she was a florist. They had two sons and built a home in Lignum, a tiny crossroads east of Culpeper. “It’s a two-sided sign,” Jeff Hash joked. There’s a big, white church, barbed-wire fences, fields with black-and-white cows grazing, flowers blooming from fat farm-equipment tires.

In a span of four months in 1996, there were three murders in the area.

Several years later, they were still unsolved, and a new sheriff took office promising to find the bad guys.

Mike Hash was big for his age at 15, blond, a kid who liked go-karts, trout fishing, staying up late with his friends or his girlfriend, and racing up and down the gravel road where they lived.

Four years later, a couple of weeks after prom, Jeff Hash heard pounding on the door and watched, dazed and still half-asleep, as police cuffed his son and took him away. He and his wife pulled on clothes and drove to the police station in another county in the middle of the night to ask what had happened.

They never questioned whether police and prosecutors had it right. Hash has always maintained his innocence.

“Never, never did I doubt him,” Jeff Hash said.

All through the trial they were certain he would be cleared. The prosecution described a brutal murder: Scroggins, a 74-year-old retired postal worker and church organist who used to wave when she brought the mail to the Hashes, opened her door to three teenagers who shot her, then stole her pickup truck.

One of the three accused had been acquitted in an earlier trial. The other testified against Hash, along with two other people. A cousin of Hash’s testified that she had heard them talking about the death.

It was close to midnight when the jury came back. “When they say ‘guilty,’ it’s like somebody stabbing you,” Jeff Hash said. “We truly believed he would be found innocent.”

They turned off their phone. “We just kind of stayed hid for a while,” Pam Hash said.

Some nights it was all too much for her, and she would drive to the jail to sit on the steps, where she could see his cell window. If she stayed long enough, she might see his shadow there at the window, with his hand lifted to wave to her. He told her sometimes he just felt something tell him to go to the window. So she would go and wait until he felt it.

They started appeals. “It was always, ‘Okay, this is where they’ll see something’s wrong,’ ” she said. “And disappointment after disappointment.”

A long fight

As the years went on, Mike Hash was moved to a maximum-security prison in southwestern Virginia. Every other Saturday, his parents would get up at 3 a.m. and drive six hours to get there. They moved into Jeff’s mother’s house to save money for legal fees.

When the last appeal was exhausted, Pam Hash took all the paperwork home from the lawyers, 11 boxes of it, and set about trying to help him on her own.

They knew nothing about the law.

Someone told her she had to go to the federal courthouse and pull the file on the witness who said that Hash had confessed the details of the murder to him while they were in a jail cell together.

She found stacks of letters the witness had written to a judge, saying he had testified against Hash and had a deal with Culpeper officials under which he expected his sentence to be reduced. (The sheriff at the time told the court late last year, and the commonwealth’s attorney conceded, that Hash had been transferred to another county’s jail for two nights in order to expose him to a known snitch.)

That was crucial, said Shawn Armbrust of the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project, which began helping in 2005, because it crushed the witness’s credibility.

Hash’s parents were certain of victory, believing the court would rule that their son was being detained without cause or enough evidence. They brought out all the Christmas presents they had bought and wrapped each year believing he’d be home to open them, lined up the movies like a time capsule in his room: “Twister,” “Forrest Gump,” “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” Pam Hash tied hundreds of yellow ribbons all along the driveway.

The petition was denied.

That’s when the Innocence Project formally got involved, and Hunton & Williams took on the case pro bono.

They argued that Hash’s initial lawyers were ineffective because they failed to find key information that would have helped the defense, such as evidence about an alternative suspect and the credibility of a key witness, and that the commonwealth violated his rights with an improper investigation and by concealing deals with witnesses.

One witness, who pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and has finished his prison time, recanted his testimony, saying sheriff’s investigators had told him the details of the crime and that he believed Hash was innocent.

Last week, on their 36th wedding anniversary, the Hashes were at a big antique mall. When Jeff Hash went back to the car to find his cellphone, he saw several missed calls from lawyers.

He ran back inside, listening to their attorney, Matthew Bosher, trying to understand the legal nuances and searching for his wife. She said he looked as though he had seen a ghost. “Which I kind of had,” he said. The conviction had finally been overturned.

They were elated. Jeff Hash had never told his employer in Crozet that he had two sons; he was worried the murder case might put his job at risk. But last week, he showed his boss photos of a young boy and then a teenager in a prison jumpsuit, and then the legal opinion that he had been exonerated.

“We can finally hold our head up,” Jeff Hash said.

Pam Hash has been in her son’s room a lot, sitting on the lighthouse bedspread when things seemed darkest, holding their Pomeranian close and telling her, “Mike is coming home. He’s coming home.”

“In theory, if there were a retrial and he got convicted, it would be the same thing all over again,” Armbrust said.

“He’s coming home,” Jeff Hash said. “He’s coming home. I just can’t wait.”

Researcher Jennifer Jenkins contributed to this report.

 
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