Wish we saw this type of investigative journalism more often these days….
Culpeper County Commonwealth’s Attorney Paul Walther assisted as second seat prosecutor in the recently overturned 2001 capital murder conviction of then 19-year-old Michael Wayne Hash, cross-examining four alibi witnesses for the defense and arguing jury instructions with the judge.
The overall outcome of the controversial case resulted in 12 years behind bars for now 31-year-old Hash, freed in March after, by most accounts, enduring wrongful incarceration in violation of his constitutional right to due process, as knowingly perpetuated by the Culpeper County justice system, the record shows.
Walther, up for election in November to the top prosecutor’s seat as Culpeper County’s GOP nominee, continues to downplay his association with the Hash case, and has criticized his opponent, independent Megan Revis Frederick, and the press for making it an issue.
Fact remains, it is an issue regardless of whether or not Walther — widely supported by local and state Republicans as well as the local legal community, the mayor and a prominent local Democrat — wants it to be. The Star-Exponent recently reviewed the 1,300-plus page Hash trial transcript and its entire record on case — including criminal files, newspaper accounts, and personal interviews — in an effort to factually gauge Walther’s exact involvement, as he seeks to become the next gatekeeper to the Culpeper legal system.
The reversal that ignited controversy
For one, Walther, 58, former deputy commonwealth’s attorney, only got the top prosecutor promotion earlier this year because of the reversal by a federal judge in February of Hash’s capital murder conviction in the July, 13 1996 brutal shooting death of church organist Thelma Scroggins in her home in Lignum. Walther, who served under former longtime Culpeper County Commonwealth’s Attorney Gary Close – another prominent local Republican – for more than 20 years, said he never wanted to run for the constitutional office against his friend and boss.
But then Close, who had just won re-election to his sixth term in November, stepped down because of Senior U.S. District Court Judge James Turk’s scathing written opinion of his handling of the Hash prosecution, detailing “extreme malfunction in the state criminal justice system” and saying “the court is disturbed by the miscarriage of justice that occurred in this case.”
Judge Turk, in his extensive 64-page ruling on the matter, granted Hash full “habeas corpus” relief, meaning “you have the body,” signifying every prisoner’s right to challenge his incarceration. Hash, all along maintaining his innocence, was 19 when he was convicted of four years earlier killing Scroggins, an elderly neighbor and retired mail carrier who lived alone, and to who he occasionally waved in passing in the neighborhood in eastern Culpeper.
No physical evidence, DNA, fingerprints or otherwise, connected him to the murder, and at least five people testified at trial that he was elsewhere the night Scroggins was murdered.
The defendant’s mother, Pam Hash, from day one — in conjunction with the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project of Washington, D.C. — worked tirelessly to free her son, testifying at his trial — along with three other alibi witnesses for the defense — that Michael was at his best buddy’s house working on a lawn mower the weekend Mrs. Scroggins was shot four times in the head. The many lies and concealments in the case finally came to light, but not until after a long fight.
Culpeper County Circuit Court and Virginia Supreme Court denied appeal after appeal until new evidence surfaced proving legally questionable arrangements existed between the Culpeper County Commonwealth’s Attorney Office and key witnesses.
Most notably discovered during the federal proceedings was the commonwealth’s orchestration, with apparently Close at the helm and help from Jenkins, of a two-night transfer of Michael Hash from Culpeper County Jail to a jail in Charlottesville so as to expose him to known prison informant Paul Carter, serving time in federal prison for drug conspiracy. This piece of sketchy information was never disclosed at Hash’s trial.
The Carter factor
What was also never disclosed was the agreement Culpeper authorities had with Carter for testifying against Hash, ultimately resulting in a lesser sentence for Carter who said in court that Hash confessed to him to killing Scroggins. Additionally, the commonwealth’s attorney office and sheriff’s office knowingly allowed Carter to lie in court about the existence of the agreement, as well as his history as a prolific informer.
According to Turk, and apparently well-known in the legal community, Carter had previously testified against at least 20 other people in at least three different prosecutions – more important facts never disclosed at Hash’s trial. Carter’s testimony was further tainted with details inconsistent with key evidence in the murder such as the number of times Hash shot Scroggins and the type of gun used.
In addition, the lead CCSO investigator in the case, Scott Jenkins – today’s Culpeper County Sheriff — at a 2007 hearing in the state habeas proceedings initially denied a deal existed with Carter, like Jenkins testified at the Hash trial six years earlier. However, according to Turk, Jenkins wrote Carter a letter a month after Hash’s conviction which stated, “if I’m ever asked by the U.S. Attorney in your case, I will tell him what you did.” Jenkins further testified in a federal deposition that “sounds like what I would have said.”
Michael Hash, testifying at his own trial, admitted he remembered talking briefly to Carter in the Charlottesville jail, but that he never confessed to him that he killed his neighbor, or ever being in the known piano teacher’s house, where an undisturbed trail of blood ran down her narrow hallway, ending at her bruised body in a back bedroom, discovered the Sunday morning after her murder in spite of sworn testimony of three teenaged boys stomping around the night before.
Also concealed in the convoluted case was the Culpeper County Commonwealth’s Attorney Office’s deal with Eric Weakley, another primary prosecution witness. He apparently concocted an entire story whereby Hash shot Scroggins twice and a friend, Jason Kloby, shot her another two times while Weakley watched.
According to testimony at Hash’s trial and court records, Weakley, in an initial unrecorded interview with CCSO investigators, denied any involvement in the murder, and did not voluntarily mention the names of Hash or Kloby, his previous buddies, until their names were given to him as suspects in the unsolved crime.
The three boys the year before were involved in a vandalism of an unoccupied house in the area, unfortunately putting them on the radar of local law enforcement.
Weakley later changed his story that he was not involved after repeated sheriff office’s interviews lasting many hours at a time and occurring late at night or early in the morning during which time Weakley was apparently fed other details of the crime and forced to confess, according to Turk, and the University of Virginia Innocence Project, working to gain exoneration for Weakley.
Part of the so-called “Culpeper Three,” Weakley never went to trial for his confessed part in the murder, including supposedly helping drag Scroggins down the hallway, his hands under her arms, Kloby pointing a gun at his head.
The commonwealth continued Weakley’s case again and again until he testified against Hash, and the conviction was won. Very shortly thereafter, the commonwealth’s attorney office in Culpeper led by Close gave Weakley a plea deal, lessening his charge from capital to second degree murder.
And yet Close said in court at Hash’s trial there was no deal with Weakley though contrary evidence existed, namely the numerous continuances, and a Virginia State Police report from June 2000 stating, “Eric Weakley’s attorney has been in negotiation with the Commonwealth’s Attorney whereby Weakley would testify against Hash and Kloby.”
Weakley, who still lives in the area, served nearly seven years in jail per the lesser plea, but has since rescinded his entire testimony against Hash saying so far as he knows none of the three then-teenaged boys were ever in Scroggins’ house and certainly did not kill her back in 1996.
Physical evidence at the crime scene corroborates that a single assailant murdered her, as was concluded in the initial investigation before the case went cold. The original theory was never pursued by Hash’s trial counsel, another problem exposed by Turk. Weakley, through his attorneys, says the local justice system fed him all the details of the murder.
Former Culpeper County Sheriff Lee Hart resurrected the case after he took office in 2000, beating the incumbent on a platform of solving unsolved crimes. Hart assigned Jenkins and James Mack as lead investigators. They were responsible for developing as suspects Hash, Weakley and Kloby, according to court records, the latter of whom was found not-guilty at trial. Hart has since moved away, and has generally declined to talk about the case.
But immediately following Hash’s conviction, Hart told the Star-Exponent the judicial system had worked, and that he was happy to see the case come to a “successful conclusion.” He said the investigation was “long and thorough” involving “teamwork” between the commonwealth and sheriff’s offices.
As part of the recent federal proceedings that finally freed Hash in March, Jenkins admitted he did not want to arrest Hash based on Weakley’s statements because he “lied numerous times in discussions with law enforcement officials.” Weakley, who developed incredulous versions of what happened that night, also failed a lie detector test about Hash’s involvement in the case, another key detail not disclosed by the Culpeper County Commonwealth’s Attorney Office.
Jenkins also said as part of the federal proceedings, “To this day, I do not believe the story they told — that three teenage boys murdered Thelma Scroggins — is plausible.” Jenkins, elected to his first term as sheriff in November, has basically blamed former sheriff Hart for how the case was mishandled.
Jenkins has declined repeated interview requests from the Star-Exponent to talk about the case.
Walther weighs in
As for Walther’s involvement in the case, he originally told the Star-Exponent it was minimal. He pointed out that Turk did not specifically mention his name in the habeas ruling, and that is true.
However, Turk’s ruling repeatedly mentions extensive misconduct in the case against Hash by, as detailed above, the Culpeper County Commonwealth’s Attorney Office, the agency that could have decided not to move forward with the case due to insufficient evidence.
More recently, Walther admitted to serving as second seat to Close in the case, and that many of Turk’s findings were news to him.
Pressed this week to provide more information about his involvement in the case, Walther responded at length to questions from the Star-Exponent; that email exchange is available online in its entirety at starexponent.com.
In summary, Walther continued to characterize his involvement in prosecuting the case as limited. He said he was not aware of or involved in any of the parts of the case that Judge Turk found troubling, “which is borne out by the fact that my name is not mentioned in his opinion nor was it mentioned in the opinions of any of the other three courts, including the Virginia Supreme Court, which reviewed and affirmed Michael Hash’s conviction.”
Members of a prosecution team can have widely different roles, Walther said, also noting that the second chair lawyer typically handles limited issues with “a working familiarity with the case,” but not necessarily involved in pre-trial matters. Walther said his cross-examination of alibi witnesses “required me to know nothing about the methods used in investigating the case and certainly nothing about the scope of materials disclosed to the defense.”
Walther added, “I will not stand for misconduct.”
He said since assuming office after Close’s sudden departure that he had “taken further affirmative steps to address the issues raised by Judge Turk” including assessment of his office’s open file and exculpatory evidence policies. Walther, in addition, said he was personally conducting ongoing training of law enforcement about their obligations under the law to disclose evidence.
The Culpeper County Commonwealth’s Attorney said he is not trying to distance himself from the case, but at the same time he would not accept responsibility for something he did not do.
“Twenty-three years ago, I made a commitment to this community to seek truth and justice, and I have not and will not waiver from that,” Walther said.
With the respect to the outcome of the Hash case, he added he wants to make sure there is never another case like it in Culpeper. Walther said even though he had no role in the problems Turk identified with the case, he accepted the judge’s decision as the rule of law.
“Trials are the search for truth,” Walther said. “My heart aches for Ms. Scroggins’ family and it is important to bring the person or persons who murdered her to justice.”
Walther’s involvement: trial transcripts
According to the Hash trial transcript in the Culpeper County Circuit Court Clerk’s Office, Walther cross-examined six witnesses in all during the five-day trial Feb. 5-9, 2001 in the snow, beginning day three. His first witness was another former sheriff, James Branch, then a CCSO deputy. Walther asked Branch about his involvement in Michael Hash’s first police interview in mid-2000 along with Inv. Russell Lane at 3:14 a.m. in the morning.
On trial day four, Walther objected several times during the direct examination of Michael Hash’s father, Jeff Hash, as he testified about Kloby not being at his house the weekend of the Scroggins’ murder as a prosecution witness testified. Walther then went on to cross-examine Jeff Hash — spanning nine pages in the trial transcript — about his whereabouts that July weekend in 1996.
Walther sough to establish that Mr. Hash did not remember he was away from home at Myrtle Beach with his wife, as another prosecution witnesses proven to be lying, Alesia Shelton, the Hashes niece, testified at her cousin’s murder trial, at which time she serving a jail sentence for robbing and shooting a Culpeper man in 1999. Walther also grilled Michael Hash’s father about whether he accurately remembered driving his son to his best friend Billy Blithe’s house the weekend Scroggins was killed.
Walther went on to cross examine both of Blithe’s parents, who along with Billy, testified at trial that Michael Hash was with them that entire weekend. “I remember the incident,” testified Sieglinde Blithe, “because to me it was hilarious when Mike fell off the lawnmower.”
More Walther participation
Walther also cross-examined alibi witness Jacqueline Smoot, Kloby’s mother, on pages 897-903 of the trial. She testified Michael Hash was not at her house the weekend of the murder, as Weakley testified contrary to Shelton who said they were all at the Hash’s house. Smoot also testified that her son, previously found not-guilty, had just returned home from Pennsylvania the day of the murder, and that he spent that night riding around the town of Orange with his girlfriend.
Smoot also testified she told police that two weeks prior to the murder of Scroggins, her neighbor, she saw “a black gentleman in front of my house … that kept walking back up and down in front of my house and I’d never seen him before” and that he looked suspicious. Her testimony fit with an alternate suspect not sufficiently investigated by the defense, according to Turk and the case file, one William Theodore “Billy” Scott, alias Adrian Lonnie Scott. He was living in the area at the time and was initially developed as a suspect. In addition, located as his residence at the time was the potential murder weapon, a rare Winchester rifle that was not taken for testing until much later.
Several prosecution witnesses testified Hash used a handgun to shoot Scroggins twice without pause when the actual weapon, a rifle, would have required reloading – yet another major inconsistency in the commonwealth’s weak case apparently built on myriad lies.
Lastly, Walther cross-examined Rhoda Carter, a lifelong member of Lael Baptist Church, where Scroggins attended. Rhoda Carter testified there were no picnic tables at the church, contradicting earlier testimony from Shelton, who said her cousin Mike Hash confessed to killing the church organist while sitting outside at the church on a picnic table.
And finally, on pages 1234-1241 of the trial transcript, the final day, Walther argued with the judge to include as part of the jury instructions an option to convict Michael Hash on lesser charges of first and second degree murder roughly based on potentially insufficient evidence — as detailed at length above — for a capital conviction, carrying a mandatory life sentence. The judge ultimately denied Walther’s request, and the jury of 10 women and two men found Hash guilty.
Life goes on
Free from jail for about six months after spending his entire adult life behind bars, Michael Hash, an articulate and seemingly easygoing person, is adjusting to life again. He is living with his parents in Crozet, has a girlfriend and is said to be working with his dad. The family is preparing to take their first vacation together in a long time. A special prosecutor from Fairfax recently nolle prossed the 2001 murder conviction against Hash, meaning there is not enough evidence to prove he did it.
As for the murder of Thelma Scroggins, that remains unsolved though an active cold case being investigated by the Fairfax County Police Department, and no longer in the hands of the CCSO or Culpeper County Commonwealth’s Attorney Office.