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Court agrees to hear appeal in Mingo obstruction conviction

By Lawrence Smith | Sep 13, 2007

CHARLESTON – The state Supreme Court has agreed to hear the appeal of two Kanawha County women convicted of obstruction of justice in Mingo County.

By doing so, says one of their attorneys, the women hope the High Court will see that officials in Mingo County are the ones guilty of obstruction of justice by denying them, and others, of their constitutional rights.

On Sept. 11, the Court in a 3-2 decision granted the joint petition for appeal by Wanda Carney and Betty Jarvis. Chief Justice Robin Jean Davis and Justice Spike Maynard were the dissenting votes.

In October 2006, the pair were convicted in Mingo Circuit Court on one count each of obstructing a police officer, and conspiracy to obstruct a police officer, both misdemeanors.

Mingo Circuit Judge Michael Thornsberry sentenced both Carney and Jarvis to three years probation to include three months home confinement.

With the assistance of their defense attorneys Jason Huber and Lonnie Simmons, with the Charleston law firms of Forman and Huber and DiTrapano, Barrett and DiPiero, respectively, and Mike Clifford, Carney, the founder of the government watchdog group West Virginia Wants to Know, and Jarvis, a former member of the Kanawha County Board of Education, filed their appeal with the Court prior to the adjournment of its 2006-07 session. In their petition, Carney and Jarvis maintain that the entire case against them, from investigation to conviction, was flawed.

"It was nutty," Clifford a former Kanawha County Prosecuting Attorney, said. "The problem I had with this case was the way it was conducted.

"I was trying to get it narrowed down to say what it was my client did that obstructed justice."

Obtaining evidence for murder case

The pair's ordeal started June 2005 when Carney first traveled to Mingo County to obtain evidence in the trial of Walter Harmon.

According to court records, Harmon was originally charged with murdering Carla Collins, a federal drug informant.

Clifford was Harmon's defense attorney. According to Clifford, Jarvis, who is Harmon's aunt, accompanied Carney, who works as his investigator, to the home of Valerie Friend to look for evidence that might exonerate Harmon.

Court records show murder charges were dropped against Harmon in July 2005, and later filed against Friend and George Lecco.

The pair made the trip to Red Jacket on July 18. Though Clifford said Jarvis entered Friend's home with the permission of Charlie Burton, the landlord, she "took nothing of value."

Carney, Clifford said, sat in the car when Jarvis was in the home.
Nevertheless, the West Virginia State Police caught wind of the pair's visit, and opened an investigation. After warrants where issued for their arrest, Carney and Jarvis voluntarily surrendered themselves to the State Police detachment in Williamson.

Initially, they were charged with four felonies, including burglary. However, Clifford says Mingo County Prosecuting Attorney C. Michael Sparks kept reducing the charges to obtain a plea agreement.

Though it looked like no charges would be brought against Carney and Jarvis, Sparks sought and obtained indictments on them on the obstruction charges from the grand jury in January 2006.

More freedom abroad than at home

The case against Carney and Jarvis, Clifford says, really boils down to free-speech. From what he was able to gather from Sparks, Clifford says the "obstruction" charges were mere allegations that they encouraged witnesses not to cooperate with local authorities in Collins' death.

However, Clifford says they merely told witnesses to take any information about the murder to the FBI. Any and all materials he obtained in the case, Clifford says he turned over to the U.S. Attorney's Office.

After they were convicted for obstruction in state court, Lecco and Friend were found guilty of Collins' murder in federal district court in Charleston. On May 29, a jury recommended the death penalty.

Though the murder charges were dropped against Harmon, he was convicted as an accessory after-the-fact. According to court records, he was sentenced on February 17, 2006 to 70 months in prison.

Like Carney's and Jarvis', Clifford says Mingo County officials trampled on Harmon's constitutional rights. By trying and convicting Carney and Jarvis on obstruction charges, Clifford says Harmon's Sixth Amendment rights were put in jeopardy.

In view of all this, Clifford says he hopes the Court will take note and overturn Carney's and Jarvis' conviction.

"If the law has gotten to the point where I can't perform an investigation in defense of my client who's been charged with murder," Clifford said, "then we might as well ship our Constitution over to Iraq because we're not using it here."

West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals, Case No. 071020

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