Special Grand Jury and Special Prosecutor Called for Beating of Greenbrier County Prosecutor

From today’s Beckley Register-Herald:

Special jury called for prosecutor beating

By Christian Giggenbach
Register-Herald Reporter

LEWISBURG — A Greenbrier County judge has ordered a special grand jury to convene next month to decide if a sheriff’s deputy will be indicted for allegedly beating county prosecutor Kevin Hanson last year during a front yard altercation.

Special prosecutor Dan Dotson of Braxton County filed a motion in circuit court last week and Judge James J. Rowe issued the order Friday for a special grand jury to convene March 18. The order also states that no member of the February grand jury, which meets today, may be called for the special grand jury.

Dotson said a special grand jury was necessary because the victim in the case, Hanson, presents evidence for indictments to the regular county grand jury.

Deputy Kevin Sawyers, a seven-year veteran of the Greenbrier County Sheriff’s department, has been charged by State Police with unlawful wounding stemming from an altercation with Hanson last August.

Dotson said up to 25 citizens may be called upon to comprise the 16-person jury. At least 12 jurors must vote that probable cause exists that a crime has been committed in order to “return a true bill” or indictment.

“The people that will hear the case must not have any ties to the recent grand jury,” Dotson said by phone Monday.

Names for grand jury lists come from DMV and tax records, as well as voting registration lists, Dotson said.

During a grand jury, prosecutors normally question the arresting officer and present evidence about the alleged crime. Rules of evidence are not followed and hearsay is allowed during a grand jury.

The accused may also testify in front of a grand jury, which is rare, but it must be done outside the presence of his or her lawyer. Judges give instructions to grand juries about the elements of a crime, but are not present during any questioning.

In September, a misdemeanor battery charge was upgraded to the felony charge of unlawful wounding against Sawyers.

Hanson, the county’s prosecutor since 2001, spent several days in a local hospital recovering from his injuries. He has not been charged in the incident.

Dotson said Hanson suffered a broken nose, separated shoulder, bruises, swelling, lacerations and abrasion from Sawyers’ attack.

The criminal complaint filed by Princeton State Trooper Sgt. M.R. Crowder states Sawyers, 37, “arrived at his estranged wife’s residence” on Aug. 2 and found Hanson “in the driveway area.”

Sawyers had previously filed for divorce from his wife, who is employed as a legal assistant at the county prosecutor’s office.

Sawyers’ defense attorney, Tom Czarnik, could not be reached for comment Monday. Sawyers remains free on $2,500 bond and was placed on paid administrative leave from his job pending the resolution of his charges.

If convicted, Sawyers faces a maximum prison sentence of five years.

Note: My guess would be that this case will go to trial – before a jury. A couple of things to point out: here you have a 7-year veteran of the Sheriff’s Department beating up the elected prosecutor. He was initially charged with misdemeanor battery, but the charges were upgraded to a felony after a “special” prosecutor was brought in on the case. Much like cops, prosecutors don’t take too kindly to one of their own getting attacked. You have to wonder if the everyday bar fight – albeit with injuries requiring hospitalization – brings a felony charge. I haven’t seen very many of those. Misdemeanor battery will probably be offered as a plea, but if he takes it he surely will lose his job. Thus, I think this case will go to trial. Historically, the husband-beats-up-other-man-with-wife defense has faired pretty well before juries – even in murder cases. Furthermore, this defendant is an Iraq war veteran, and probably a pretty sympathetic guy. I give him a good shot at being acquitted. – John H. Bryan, West Virginia criminal defense attorney.

Jury Convicts Michael Merrifield in Putnam County, WV Murder Case

From today’s Charleston Daily Mail:

Jurors find Michael Merrifield guilty

by Cheryl Caswell
Daily Mail staff

WINFIELD – After little more than one day of deliberations, a jury has found Michael Merrifield guilty of the murder of 2-year-old Logan Goodall.

They also found Merrifield, 32, guilty of causing the death of a child as a parent or guardian and guilty of sexual abuse by a parent or guardian. They found him not guilty of first-degree sexual assault.

Jurors did not recommend mercy, so the first-degree murder charge carries a life sentence.

Watch video of the verdict being read here
An attorney for Michael Merrifield had told jurors during his closing argument that other people should have been suspects in the 2005 death of the Putnam County toddler.

Ed Rebrook, who along with Mike Clifford has represented Merrifield in his first-degree murder trial, implored jurors to remember there was no direct evidence to link Merrifield with the child’s injuries or death.

And Rebrook again raised the question he has brought up several times during the trial – that Michael’s brother was suspect.

“Where was Patrick Merrifield?” Rebrook asked. “We know he had access to the child. He refused to testify. You have (Logan’s mother) Pepper Eren, you have Michael Merrifield and you have Patrick Merrifield.

“All three suspects were in the house in the time range the physicians have given us for when death occurred.”

Three witnesses, including another medical examiner called in by the state Wednesday, said Logan bled to death from a liver laceration and it could have taken several hours.

“The state wants you through a process of elimination to see that Michael Merrifield did it,” Rebrook said. “That is not what you agreed to do when you agreed to serve on this jury.”

The jury began deliberating Wednesday and continued today.

Conspicuously absent from the courtroom Wednesday for closing arguments were the defendant’s parents, Dr. John and Diane Merrifield, who have sat directly behind their son for the entire trial in Putnam Circuit Court.

The Merrifields were believed to be with Patrick, who reportedly had been admitted to Charleston Area Medical Center.

An operator at CAMC said no information could be given out about Patrick Merrifield. His attorney, Jim Cagle, also would not answer questions.

Patrick was subpoenaed by the defense but invoked his Fifth Amendment right not to testify because he didn’t want to incriminate himself.

Frequently during the trial, the defense had pointed out that Logan, while in the care of Michael Merrifield, also spent a lot of time with Patrick.

In his closing statements, Putnam County Prosecutor Mark Sorsaia asked the jury to find Michael guilty and grant him no mercy.

The former boyfriend of Logan’s mother, Michael is accused of sexually assaulting, abusing and killing Logan on Sept. 6, 2005.

“Do not recommend mercy,” Sorsaia said. “There is none. Don’t give it to him. This is the man who abused this child, causing his death.”

Sorsaia displayed photographs of the dead child while he spoke to jurors. Melissa Eren, the boy’s grandmother, openly wept, and many others in the courtroom cried and dabbed their eyes.

The prosecutor reiterated to the jury the many injuries the boy sustained, including multiple bruises and cuts, and told them no one else could have inflicted them. He said Michael had abused and tortured the boy for months.

“On the 6th of September his body gave up and sought refuge in death. He did not have the benefit of a loving mother or father with him, or a compassionate caregiver to help him.

“He died alone, in the presence of the man over there, who is responsible for killing him,” Sorsaia told them.

But Rebrook told jurors they couldn’t fairly jump to the conclusion that Michael abused or killed the boy. Instead, he reminded them of testimony from witnesses who said Michael loved Logan and provided care for him that his mother did not.

Sorsaia said the toddler wanted nothing but love but got only pain and hurt in his life.

“No matter how hard that little boy worked at being good, he got hurt,” he said. “Children have nothing but love to give, even when someone hurts them.”

Sorsaia reminded the jury of all the stories Michael told of how the child was injured.

“He told everyone at the hospital he loved the child, but the nurses were too smart,” Sorsaia told them. “They noticed he did not have any tears.

“All three paramedics were suspicious. The nurses were suspicious,” he said.

But Rebrook told the jury that medical professionals can jump to the wrong conclusion. He told them his wife once fell down the steps in their home and cut her head. He said he took her to the hospital and was surprised when health care professionals suspected abuse.

“They said to her, ‘He did this to you, didn’t he?’ ” Rebrook recounted.

“I tell you that to tell you in this world there is injustice,” Rebrook said.

Rebrook said that if the child was being hurt and abused, family members would have known it.

“If you hurt a child, they are going to tell someone,” he said. “If Michael Merrifield had burned that child, don’t you think the child would have told his grandparents? Don’t you think he would have said, ‘Michael did this to me?’ ”

Rebrook said he thought Michael might have caused the boy’s death in his desperate attempts to revive him the day he died.

According to court records and witness statements, Michael repeatedly told police Logan had started having a seizure and he squeezed and hit him on the back to revive him.

“But I don’t think he murdered him,” Rebrook said.

“My client has been in jail for more than two years,” he said. “I ask you to set him free.”

Note: Examine the last three sentences of the article. The defense attorney posits the theory that his client may have accidentally killed the child in his attempts to resuscitate. I have heard this used before in infant abuse murder cases. This is a classic decision for a jury: is the medical evidence and other evidence in the case consistent with this theory? Evidently the jury found that it was not. The defense attorney also states after positing the theory, “But I don’t think he murdered him.” This is unique. Usually it is not appropriate for the defense attorney to give an opinion as to personal belief to the jury, only to argue on behalf of the client. But, who is going to complain? Certainly not the prosecutor, because the guy was convicted. – John H. Bryan, West Virginia criminal defense attorney.

Jury Selected for Accused “Cop-Killer”

From today’s Register-Herald:

Jury selected for accused cop killer

By Matthew Hill
Register-Herald Reporter
A jury of seven women and five men, along with two male alternates, was impaneled Thursday for the March 10 trial of a Beckley man charged with fatally gunning down a city undercover police officer in August 2006.

The panel was seated Thursday after Raleigh County Circuit Judge H.L. Kirkpatrick started Wednesday morning with a pool of 47 potential jurors for the trial of Thomas Leftwich, 25. Leftwich is charged with one count each of first-degree murder, conspiracy and use of a firearm in connection with the Aug. 29, 2006, shooting death of Beckley Police Detective Cpl. Chuck Smith.

Kirkpatrick thanked the jurors for “going above and beyond the call of duty” in braving Thursday’s inclement weather to appear in his courtroom. He cautioned the jurors to refrain from reading, viewing or listening to media coverage of the case. Kirkpatrick added they would be individually questioned March 10 as to any media coverage to which they may have been exposed.

A motions hearing in the case is scheduled for Feb. 21. Chief deputy prosecutor Kristen Keller is heading up the prosecution, while Leftwich is represented by Logan County attorney Mark Hobbs.

Leftwich’s co-defendant, Michael E. Martin, 42, of Beckley, was convicted last month of first-degree murder and conspiracy in connection with Smith’s death in an alleged undercover drug buy that went sour.

In that case, as in Leftwich’s, a jury was selected several weeks ahead of the trial due to heavy publicity surrounding the case. Attorneys have worried that intense media coverage could make jury selection problematic.

Martin faces life in prison with no chance of parole when he is sentenced today by Kirkpatrick.

Note: This reporter is one of the same reporters that covered the Patricia Brown murder trial that I was involved in. It is always frustrating to read the newspaper every morning during a highly-publicized murder trial in that it is almost always heavily biased against your client. The sad thing is that you know jurors are probably reading the paper every morning too. Even worse than the paper is watching the evening news on TV – they are horribly, horribly biased and inaccurate. However, this particular reporter, Matthew Hill, began his stories about the Patricia Brown trial in a very biased way – see for example this article, titled “Victim named killer as she bled to death, witness says.” It makes you cringe to picture jurors waking up in the morning and taking a glance at the front page of the paper, whether they actually read the article or not. However, I think that after sitting through every witness in the trial, he began to publish articles that were more fair and balanced, see for example this article titled “Defense hints at theory in murder trial,” or this article titled “Experts testify in Brown murder trial.”

Anyways, in the above case, using the label “cop-killer” definitely is not going to help the defense if potential jurors hear that word. In their mind, they are not going to want to even consider the possibility of finding someone not guilty who has been touted in the community as being a “cop killer.” Whether he is or not is irrelevant. The point is that even defendants charged with killing cops are entitled to a fair and impartial jury. This is probably something that you will see at the trial itself. Trial lawyers like to use labels in front of juries. I’m sure the prosecution will repeatedly refer to the defendant as a “cop killer,” probably over the objection of the defense. – John H. Bryan, Attorney at Law.