Why State Supreme Court justices dissented
The West Virginia Supreme Court overturned two Morgan County Circuit Court convictions in the last two months and ordered new trials for the defendants.
By a narrow 3-2 ruling in each case, a majority of State Supreme Court justices called for new trials for Denver A. Youngblood, Jr. and Brian Daniel Murray.
In addition to a majority legal opinion explaining the reasons that three justices gave for tossing out the Youngblood and Murray convictions, minority opinions were later released in each of the cases.
Justice Brent Benjamin wrote a dissenting opinion in State of West Virginia v. Denver A. Youngblood, Jr. He believed Youngblood's conviction for sexual assault and other charges from the same July, 2000 incident should have stood.
In that case, a majority of justices granted a new trial on the grounds that the state had withheld evidence – a note that a state trooper allegedly failed to take into evidence, without informing the prosecutor.
The note was allegedly written by two friends of a 16-year-old girl who claimed to have been sexually assaulted by Youngblood, then 28. One line read "Katara said Thanks" to Denver for engaging in oral sex with her.
In his dissenting opinion, Justice Benjamin brushed aside the importance of the note, writing that it "is simply not credible on its face."
He pointed out that in statements to the police, Youngblood denied engaging in sex acts with the girl, so he couldn't now use the defense that they were consentual.
Benjamin also stressed that the victim did not write the note, and its authenticity and admissibility in court are still undetermined.
Justice Elliot Maynard wrote a dissenting opinion in State of West Virginia v. Brian Daniel Murray. Murray had been found guilty by a jury of failing to render aid at an auto accident that killed Justin McAnulty in June, 2004.
Maynard felt the conviction should have stood, but three justices granted a new trial because they felt Murray's rights were violated by statements made by Prosecutor Debra McLaughlin.
The main issue was that in her closing argument, McLaughlin drew attention to the fact that Murray hadn't testified. She referred to "the testimony – not the testimony, the statements – of the Defendant."
Justice Maynard pointed out that McLaughlin immediately corrected her slip of the tongue and it was not seen as a big deal at the time.
He also felt other justices misinterpreted statements by McLaughlin to build the argument that she had unfairly drawn attention to Murray not testifying.
Maynard saw this as muzzling the prosecution, "rendering them unable to fairly present their side of the case."
More pointedly, Maynard gave his theory of the case. In Maynard's view, Murray left the scene that night "because he did not want to be arrested and charged with the crime of DUI causing death."
The next morning, Murray "returned to the scene of the accident and pretended to find Mr. McAnulty's body for the first time," according to Maynard's minority opinion.
"That is what really happened here, and everybody familiar with the evidence knows it," Maynard wrote. "However, I long ago gave up believing that trials are a search for the truth."