West Virginia Legislative Claims Commission

Volume Number: 30
Category(s): UNJUST CONVICTION, none
Opinion Issued July 3, 2013
(CC-09-0284, CC-09-0285)
     Lonnie C. Simmons, Attorney at Law, for Claimant Carney. Katherine Snow, Attorney at Law, for Claimant Jarvis.
     Harden C. Scragg Jr., Assistant Attorney General, for Respondent.
      The Claimants, Wanda Carney and Betty Jarvis, filed the instant claims pursuant to W. Va. Code §14-2-13a and under this Court’s general jurisdiction, seeking damages for their respective wrongful convictions and for their loss of liberty associated with serving 120 days of home confinement, which was wrongly imposed on them by the Circuit Court of Mingo County. The Court has consolidated their respective claims, because both claims arise from the same operative facts. Upon its review of the entire record, including all of the testimony presented at a full and fair hearing on this matter, the Court is of the opinion to make awards in these claims for the reasons more fully stated below.
      The uncontested facts are as follows: In June 2005, the deceased body of Carla Collins was discovered in a makeshift grave near an abandoned trailer in Mingo County. The ensuing investigation revealed that Valerie Friend had murdered Collins in April of the same year at the direction of George “Porgie” Lecco. Subsequently, the State’s initial charges were dismissed to make way for a federal investigation that resulted in charges being filed against six individuals for sundry crimes in connection with the murder; they were: George Lecco, Valerie Friend, Patricia Burton, Walter Harmon, Charleston Burton, and Jake Hatfield. Harmon was represented by Michael T. Clifford, Attorney at Law, who employed Claimant Wanda Carney as an investigator in his office. Claimant Betty Jarvis, Harmon’s aunt, offered to assist Claimant Carney in her investigation. See State v. Carney and Jarvis, 663 S.E.2d 606, 608 (2008).
      As part of the Claimants’ dual investigation, they interviewed from fifty to seventy different individuals in Mingo County. These interviews revealed that Harmon was not present during the murder of Collins. In light of this information, the murder charges against Harmon were dismissed.
      In response to Claimants’ interviews the State determined that the Claimants had hindered the police investigation into the murder of Collins by deceiving and intimidating a material witness, Alola Boseman, with false and defamatory statements about lead investigators First Sergeant D.M. Nelson, Trooper First Class A.S. Perdue, and First Lieutenant C.E. Akers. For this reason, the State filed charges against Claimants for obstructing a police officer and for conspiracy to obstruct a police officer. The State further alleged that Claimants temporarily relocated Carmella Blankenship–a material witness–and that Claimants unlawfully entered the residence of Valerie Friend, and they removed and concealed certain evidentiary items. Id. at 609.
      At the conclusion of Claimants’ trial, the jury returned a guilty verdict against Claimants on both charges of obstruction and conspiracy to obstruct. The trial court sentenced Claimants to a term of one year of confinement at the Southwest Regional Jail for each of the two charges, to be served concurrently. Crediting Claimants for forty-five days of home confinement already served, the trial court suspended the jail sentences and placed Claimants on probation for a term of three years. Claimants were required to serve a total of 120 days of electronic home confinement; fulfill 200 hours of community service; and complete a higher education class in criminal justice. Id.
      The Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia stated the following on appeal:
     Having concluded that the State failed to introduce evidence upon which a jury could properly find Appellants guilty of obstructing a police officer in his official capacity in violation of West Virginia Code § 61-5-17(a), we conclude that the convictions must be reversed. Because the conspiracy convictions were predicated on the offense of obstructing a police officer, those convictions must also be reversed given our conclusion that the obstruction convictions are not sustainable. Accordingly, the orders of the Circuit Court of Mingo County sentencing Appellants in connection with the obstruction and conspiracy to commit obstruction of a police officer are hereby reversed.
     Id. (footnote omitted).
      Claimants allege significant pain and suffering associated with their wrongful convictions and sentences. Claimant Carney testified that she was forced to retire from her position with a nonprofit organization, the sole purpose of which was to stop political corruption in West Virginia. Claimant Carney also testified that she was forced to leave her son’s wedding early, a wedding that had to be rescheduled for a Sunday in order to classify it as a church related event so that Claimant Carney could attend because of the restrictions imposed by her sentence. Claimants Carney and Jarvis both testified that they have had no criminal records during their entire lives, and that their convictions in Mingo County caused tremendous embarrassment to them in their personal and professional lives and in their communities. Claimant Jarvis testified that she is unable to find steady substitute teaching work, because of her perceived criminal status in her community. Both Claimants testified that although their convictions were set aside, they are still perceived as convicted criminals and that they will never be able to escape public ridicule and scrutiny. In addition to Claimants’ pain and suffering, Claimants allege numerous out-of-pocket expenses based largely on lost wages, legal fees, and required educational registration fees.
      In sum, Claimants maintain that they are entitled to recover their out-of-pocket expenses, pain and suffering, and loss of liberty associated with their wrongful convictions. Conversely, Respondent argues that the Claimants are not eligible under W. Va. Code §14-2-13a, because their own actions brought about the charges, trials, and subsequent convictions.
      W. Va. Code §14-2-13a, known as the “Unjust Arrest and Wrongful Conviction” statute, states in relevant part that “[i]n order to present a claim for unjust . . . conviction . . ., claimant must establish by documentary evidence that . . . (3) his judgment of conviction was reversed or vacated, and the accusatory instrument dismissed . . .” The facts of these claims support a finding of wrongful conviction, and thus meet the elements of the statute. Our Supreme Court has concluded that the convictions in the Mingo County Circuit Court were to be reversed. Given our Supreme Court’s decision in this matter, this Court must apply the statute accordingly. Therefore, Claimants were wrongfully convicted, and the only remaining question for the Court is the extent to which Claimants should be compensated for having undergone such an ordeal.
      This Court has held previously, in Matzdorff v. State of West Virginia, 29 Ct. Cl. _ (2012), that “[t]here are few better examples of a moral obligation existing on the part of the State than when a Claimant has sustained an unjustified loss of liberty, and remedies at law are not availing.” This Court has struggled with the proper measure of damages in such cases. In Matzdorff, we ultimately held that “[t]he unique facts and circumstances of each case will guide the Court in determining the amount to fairly compensate a claimant.”
      In the instant case, in light of the nature of the deprivation suffered by Claimants, and after considering the unique facts and circumstances of each of their respective claims, and the record in its entirety, including the findings of the Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia, the Court finds that an award in the amount of $48,000.00 should be made to Claimant Carney, and an award of $57,000.00 should be made to Claimant Jarvis.
      Accordingly, the Court finds in equity and in good conscience that the Claimants are entitled to the relief requested in the Notice of Claim, and the awards as stated above are fair and reasonable based on the wrongful convictions, and the damage suffered.
      Award $48,000.00 to Claimant Carney.
      Award $57,000.00 to Claimant Jarvis.

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