Probable Cause Found in Bluefield Shooting Case – Preliminary Hearings Basically Meaningless in West Virginia

From the Bluefield Daily Telegraph today:

Mario Goodson, 18, appeared Monday for a preliminary hearing before Magistrate Rick Fowler. Fowler found probable cause in Goodson’s case and bound him over to the Mercer County Grand Jury.

Both Goodson and Kenneth Dwayne Eaves, 19, of Bluefield are facing charges of conspiracy and first-degree murder in the Dec. 14, 2007 death of 28-year-old William Jerome Flack of Bluefield. Detective L.B. Murphy of the Mercer County Sheriff’s Department testified Feb. 8 that witnesses allegedly heard Eaves order a second person, Goodson, to shoot Flack.

Wow, that is a big surprise. Many West Virginians do not realize that if they are arrested on a felony, they are entitled to a preliminary hearing in front of a supposedly neutral magistrate to establish whether the police have probable cause to hold you in jail (or on bond) for the charges. They also don’t realize that this process is for the most part a farce, a formality. Preliminary hearings in West Virginia are a joke. The magistrates for the most part are not lawyers and have no legal training on what is and what is not probable cause. They, for the most part, have no idea what is and what is not admissible under the West Virginia Rules of Evidence (of course, there are exceptions).

The West Virginia Rules of Criminal Procedure allow for “relaxed hearsay” in preliminary hearings. This means that the investigating officer can come in and testify to some hearsay if there is a substantial basis for believing that (1) the source of the hearsay is credible; (2) there is a factual basis for the information furnished; and (3) it would impose an unreasonable burden on one of the parties or on a witness to require that the primary source of the evidence be produced at the hearing. Therein lies the problem. Many magistrates will just allow the investigating officer to come in and testify to anything and everything they were told throughout their investigation. Then, the magistrate will say, “well, probable cause is a very low burden, and they have met the burden… I find there is probable cause.”

For instance, I had a client who was charged with a absolutely ludicrous felony charge in Greenbrier County. His preliminary hearing was held by a magistrate in Greenbrier County. The State subpoenaed three witnesses: the investigating officer, and two very disreputable convicted felons whom had been caught red-handed and pointed the finger at my client to try and get a plea deal. They appeared and were waiting in the waiting room as the hearing began. The State called the officer first, and he proceeded to testify to almost entirely hearsay testimony – basically everything the other two idiots in the waiting room would have testified to. I objected to hearsay, reciting the above relaxed hearsay rule, but the magistrate basically said that all hearsay is allowed in preliminary hearings. Thus, the magistrate allowed the hearsay testimony despite the fact that the two idiots were in the next room, so the primary source of the evidence could have testified. Furthermore, they were extremely incredible. One of them was notorious in the county for being a career criminal, having spider web tattoos all the way up his neck. The lying officer however, grinned and testified that he thought the man was credible. I later told this to the Prosecuting Attorney, and he laughed and joked that everyone knew that this was the most incredible man in the county, perhaps the state.

As it turns out, when it came my turn to call witnesses, I obviously tried to call the two idiots in the waiting room, so that my client would at least have the opportunity to confront his witnesses. Believe it or not, the assistant prosecutor, on his first week of the job, objected on the grounds that they may be charging one of them with a crime and one may testify against the other, and that therefore there was a “use immunity issue.” I responded that it was irrelevant, and was the prosecutor’s problem and had no bearing on the hearing. The magistrate however, got really, really worried that she was going to make someone mad in the prosecutor’s office and decided not to allow me to call any of the witnesses that had been subpoenaed to the hearing and were waiting in the next room. Then, that was it: she found probable cause and we were not allowed to call any witnesses. This was an absolute disgrace to our criminal justice system. Imagine if it were your son or daughter that was treated like this.

Fortunately this client was able to make bail, as his case was never even brought to the grand jury. If it were some poor sap who didn’t have any money, he would still be sitting in jail thanks to this meaningless system of magistrates conducting preliminary hearings.

By the way, these same non-lawyer judges are the ones who make decisions on whether or not the police have probable cause to be issued warrants to search your home – or to arrest you. Yes, it’s very scary and very unjust.

Read the full article here.

– John H. Bryan, West Virginia Attorney.

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