Conviction Machine Rolls Along in Leftwich Murder Trial

From today’s Beckley Register-Herald:

Note: Apparently the judge reversed his prior ruling denying the defense the ability to call an expert witness to testify about proper undercover procedure. The reason for the reversal was that the State called their own witness solely to testify as to the “ins and outs of undercover investigations.” Thus, the defense should be permitted to have their own witness testify as to the impropriety of the supposed undercover operation on the night of the killing. This could form the basis for a self-defense claim. Regardless, if the judge is going to allow the prosecution to present pictures of the defendant posing with guns and old targets painted as police officers, which are extremely prejudicial, he should allow the defense to fully develop his self defense theory. This requires looking at the situation through the eyes of the defendant – which requires testimony regarding the victim’s actions that night.

Another thing which stuck out to me was the testimony regarding having girlfriends or wives in an undercover vehicle while performing a drug buy. Both Trooper Van Meter and their expert, Trooper Davis, testified that “in case of an emergency, they could not swear they would not take their wives along.” What a load of garbage. They were obviously coached by the prosecution to say that. Since when is buying drugs an emergency? Obviously anything can happen in an emergency – what is important here is policy and procedure. This is what is scary about our criminal justice system in West Virginia – even WV State Police officers are willing to slant their testimony and lie on the stand in order to help the prosecution obtain a conviction. Maybe no one cares in this case. But, as I always say, you will care when your brother or son is wrongly accused of a crime and the State puts the conviction machine to work against them. – John H. Bryan, West Virginia Criminal Defense Attorney.


State Police Cpl. D.C. Eldridge shows the jury in the Thomas Leftwich murder trial a photo, recovered from Leftwich’s computer, of the defendant posing with weapons. Eldridge testified in Raleigh County Circuit Court that the computer contained digital images of narcotics, money, various weapons on display and the defendant posing with the weapons.
Rick Barbero / Register-Herald Photographer

Defense to begin in Leftwich trial

Michelle James
Register-Herald Reporter

Following the testimony of three State Police officers, the defendant’s brother and a taped recording of the defendant himself, the state rested its case Wednesday against 25-year-old Thomas Leftwich, charged with first-degree murder, conspiracy and felony use of a firearm in the Aug. 29, 2006, shooting death of Beckley Police Detective Cpl. Chuck Smith.

“I heard him screaming, so I figured I hit him in the leg,” Leftwich said on the tape, adding he was “trying to aim low.”

“I didn’t want to kill the man or nothing.”

The defense will begin presenting its case when the trial resumes this morning. Leftwich is expected to testify at some point in the defense’s case.

Leftwich, in a statement recorded just hours after Smith’s death, was heard explaining what happened in the minutes before and after the fatal shooting of the man he said he did not know was a police officer.

After receiving a phone call shortly after 4 a.m., Leftwich agreed to meet a man he referred to as “Mike,” now known to be Michael Martin, as well as a second person who, in Martin’s words, wanted to buy drugs. Martin was convicted of murder in December and sentenced to life in prison.

Leftwich, who lived in a house atop a hill at the corner of Willow Lane and South Fayette Street, said Martin called and said he was outside waiting. When Leftwich reached the steps leading from his yard to the street below, he said he saw Martin and a “white dude.”

After handing the drugs over, Leftwich said, the person told him “today was my bad day.”

Leftwich told police he feared he was about to be robbed, and when he saw the man reach for what he thought to be a gun, he “pulled out my gun as quick as I could and started firing.”

After firing “three, possibly four” shots, Leftwich said he ran, placing the gun underneath a porch and hiding in his basement.

He told police he knew the person he shot at had been hit.

“He kind of turned around screaming …, ” Leftwich said. “I knew from the screaming that he was hit.”

Leftwich said he decided to confess when he saw his family, including a younger brother, being led from the house in handcuffs after police obtained a search warrant based on information from an eyewitness, Beckley Police Cpl. Will Reynolds.

Earlier in the trial, both Reynolds and Smith’s then-girlfriend, Jasminda (Gonzalez) Curen, testified they saw Smith show Leftwich his badge just before he was shot.

In his statement, however, Leftwich said something different.

“I didn’t see no badges,” he said, adding later, “He could have been reaching for a badge or something, but he didn’t say he was a policeman.”

In his statement, Leftwich said he picked up the loaded Smith & Wesson .357 revolver at the last second because of a bad feeling or “gut instinct.”

Kenneth Leftwich testified he could not remember if he ever told police his brother was a crack cocaine dealer, but said he “told the troopers he might have sold a little bit of marijuana.”

When asked by chief deputy prosecutor Kristen Keller if his brother was a crack dealer, Kenneth Leftwich responded, “I’m not sure.”

Kenneth Leftwich testified he was awakened by multiple gunshots just after 4 a.m. on Aug., 29, 2006, adding there were 15 to 20 shots fired and that he later saw 15 to 20 shell casings in the road.

After hearing the gunshots, Kenneth Leftwich said, he called his brother’s cell phone to “make sure he was OK.”

Keller asked him about additional phone calls and Leftwich said he did not know his brother had shot and killed Smith.

State Police Capt. Scott Van Meter testified that based on phone records there were seven calls between the brothers the morning of Smith’s death.

When shown by Keller a painted picture of a police officer riddled with bullet holes, Kenneth Leftwich admitted he and his brother had used it for target practice, writing their initials, either “T.L.” or “K.L.,” beside each hole. He told his brother’s attorney, Mark Hobbs, the “paint by color” picture had been completed by another brother several years earlier and was the only target he and Thomas ever used.

Although the target depicts a police officer and was marked with a scoring system, awarding different points for different hits, Kenneth Leftwich said he and his brother never discussed or planned to shoot a police officer.

Van Meter told Hobbs the target “looks to me like the rehearsal to doing it (killing an officer),” adding he believed it demonstrated there was an anger toward police.

When asked by Hobbs if he believed that anger was enough to kill an officer, Van Meter responded, “Could be.”

State Police Cpl. D.C. Eldridge testified about photographs recovered from a computer seized from the Leftwich residence the morning Smith was killed.

Eldridge said he recovered 231 photo files, many of which featured narcotics, weapons or money.

In some of those pictures, which were shown to the jury, Leftwich is shown posing with various weapons, including the gun used to shoot Smith.

Hobbs argued the importance of the picture, asking Eldridge if the weapons shown in the photos could be purchased by the general public at a sporting goods store.

“They can be,” Eldridge replied, adding the purchases would be contingent on the buyer’s background and the intended use for the weapon.

State Police Cpl. Jason Davis, who has worked undercover for seven years, testified about the ins and outs of undercover investigations.

When questioned by Hobbs about using his police car as a personal vehicle, as Smith is said to have done, Davis testified his work car was his primary car, and, as an undercover officer, it would look suspicious if he was seen by drug contacts in multiple cars.

Responding to Hobbs’ references and questions regarding Smith’s girlfriend’s presence at the time of the shooting, both Davis and Van Meter testified they, in the case of an emergency, could not swear they would not take their wives along.

Because of Davis’ testimony, Judge H.L. Kirkpatrick reversed a pre-trial ruling, advising Hobbs he would be permitted to produce his own witness to testify about undercover protocol.

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