Misconduct in a murder investigation?
By Editorial Board,
AN ALLEGED accomplice testified in gruesome detail about how Michael Wayne Hash, then 15 years old, shot and killed an elderly Virginia woman in 1996. Two other witnesses swore that Mr. Hash confessed. It did not take long in 2001 for a Virginia jury to convict him and sentence him to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Mr. Hash, now 31, is one of the fortunate few who secured help from the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project and the Hunton & Williams law firm. His mother’s perseverance also paid off when she discovered information that shattered the credibility of a pivotal witness. Last month, a federal judge threw out Mr. Hash’s conviction after characterizing the case as a “miscarriage of justice.” A key investigator in the case, Scott H. Jenkins, was elected Culpeper County sheriff last year; Gary L. Close was Culpeper’s commonwealth’s attorney during the Hash prosecution and continues to hold that office today.
Senior Judge James C. Turk of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia laid out in a lengthy opinion an unconscionable record of official misconduct that led to Mr. Hash’s 12-year wrongful imprisonment. There was no physical evidence linking Mr. Hash to the crime. The murder victim was killed by shots from a .22-caliber weapon, yet police failed to take into evidence a .22-caliber long gun found in the home of an initial suspect who lived near the victim. Culpeper County officers allegedly coached key witnesses and showed them crime scene photographs when they provided information that clashed with the evidence. These witnesses failed polygraph tests — a fact that was kept from defense lawyers — and the alleged accomplice ultimately recanted.
Shortly after the arrest, then-Sheriff Lee Hart, with Mr. Close’s approval, transferred Mr. Hash to a facility where he could share a cellblock with a prolific jailhouse snitch. The informant ultimately testified against Mr. Hash after Culpeper officials vowed to help him reduce his sentence. The informant lied about the existence of such a deal, as did Culpeper officials, including Mr. Jenkins, according to the opinion. Mr. Hash’s mother discovered the deal when she reviewed the informant’s court files — something Mr. Hash’s original lawyers had failed to do.
Mr. Jenkins says that he did “nothing unethical or illegal” in the Hash case. “Everything I did was open for scrutiny by Sheriff Hart and . . . [Commonwealth’s Attorney] Close and to my knowledge presented to defense attorneys for scrutiny,” he added. Mr. Close did not make himself available for an interview.
The Virginia Attorney General’s Office announced that it will not appeal the decision by Judge Turk, who gave the commonwealth’s attorney six months to decide whether to retry Mr. Hash. Fairfax County Commonwealth’s Attorney Raymond Morrogh has been appointed special prosecutor and asked to make that determination. Given the power and depth of Judge Turk’s opinion, Mr. Hash should be released on bail until the prosecutor decides.
State officials should also determine whether any of the officials involved should face disciplinary action. If Judge Turk’s conclusions are confirmed, individuals who committed such violations should have no business holding sway over the fate of others.
For more from Post Opinions: Editorial: Maryland’s broken death penalty Charles Lane: Oregon’s death penalty cop-out Eugene Robinson: With the death penalty, ‘probably’ isn’t good enough Editorial: A welcome drop in executions in 2011