When Michael Hash was just 19, he was convicted of killing an elderly neighbor and sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. He was convicted solely on the testimony of three suspect witnesses – there was no physical evidence linking him to the crime.
On the morning of July 14, 1996, the body of 74-year-old Thelma Scroggins, a retired mail carrier and church organist, was found in her home in Lignum, Virginia. She had been shot four times in the head.
The first investigator concluded, based on crime scene evidence, that a single assailant had committed the crime. The victim’s purse was missing, as was her truck. The purse was found in the truck a month later in a wooded area.
A resident of the neighborhood, Billy Scott, came under suspicion because he had a .22-caliber rifle—the type of weapon believed used in the shooting—but he was not charged and the investigation went cold.
In late 1999, the investigation was reopened and police questioned Alesia Shelton, who had been convicted of a robbery and shooting at the front door of a house in which the victim survived. Shelton told police that her cousin, Michael Hash, and two others, Jason Kloby and Eric Weakley, had killed Scroggins.
Hash, 19, who was 15 at the time of the murder, was arrested along with Weakley, 20, and Kloby, 22, in May of 2000. Kloby faced the death penalty, but Weakley and Hash did not because they were juveniles at the time of the crime, though both were charged as adults.
Hash went on trial before a jury in February 2001. Weakley again testified about how the crime occurred and Shelton again testified about the conversation relating to killing an old woman and Hash’s admission to participating in the crime.
The prosecution also called Paul Carter, a convicted drug dealer serving a federal prison sentence, who testified that Hash confessed to the murder when they were both housed at the Albemarle-Charlottesville Regional Jail after Hash was arrested.
Carter’s account of Hash’s confession had several inconsistencies with the actual facts of the case. He denied that he had been promised anything in exchange for testimony.
Hash testified in his own defense and admitted he had been present some months prior to the murder when Weakley and Kloby discussed committing a robbery, but denied any involvement in the Scroggins murder.
Hash said he was with a friend several miles away at the time of the crime. Numerous other witnesses confirmed his alibi.
During closing argument, Culpeper County Commonwealth Attorney Gary Close told the jury that Carter had not been promised any deal and that Carter was truthful when he denied there was any deal.
On February 9, 2001, the jury convicted Hash and he was sentenced to life in prison without parole.
Ultimately, Carter’s 180-month prison term had been cut to 60 months, which allowed him to be released almost immediately.
On February 28, 2012, a federal judge vacated Hash’s conviction and ordered a new trial. The judge found a “cavalcade of evidence” demonstrating outrageous police and prosecutorial misconduct as well as a failure of Hash’s trial lawyers to adequately investigate the case and present a defense based on an alternative suspect.
The judge ruled that Carter lied at the trial about not having a deal and that Close knew it. Close, the trial prosecutor, conceded that the statement was a lie and that his closing argument was misleading.
The judge found that Hash was intentionally moved from the Culpeper County Jail to be in the same unit with Carter, who was a well-known jailhouse snitch. The judge also found that the prosecution had failed to disclose a deal with Weakley for his testimony. During the habeas proceedings, Weakley recanted his testimony and said he had no knowledge of the crime. He said that police had provided him with the details of the crime.
The judge also found that at least one police investigator testified falsely at Hash’s trial when he said interviews with Weakley were not recorded,. Those interview tapes were never provided to the defense. [National Registry of Exonerations]
The Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project and the law firm Hunton & Williams were able to prove that Hash’s conviction was entirely based on manufactured witness testimony and tainted by extensive police and prosecutorial misconduct, winning a victory in federal court.
Often, statements from people with incentives to testify—particularly incentives that are not disclosed to the jury—are the central evidence in convicting an innocent person. People have been wrongfully convicted in cases in which snitches are paid to testify or receive favors in return for their testimony.