CHARLESTON – Wanda Carney and Betty Jarvis did not obstruct police investigating the Mingo County murder of Carla Collins, the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals has decided.
All five Justices agreed April 25 that when Carney and Jarvis interviewed witnesses as private investigators, they exercised their right of free speech.
The Court reversed Circuit Judge Michael Thornsbury, who in 2006 presided over a trial that found Carney and Jarvis guilty of obstructing and conspiring to obstruct police.
Thornsbury sentenced Carney and Jarvis to a year at Southwest Regional Jail, but he suspended the sentences and placed them on three years probation including 120 days of home confinement, 200 hours of community service and a criminal justice class.
Carney and Jarvis spent 45 days in home confinement before trial.
In an unsigned opinion, the Justices wrote that "constitutionally protected free speech cannot be relied upon as a basis for establishing the offense of obstruction."
Conviction requires proof that actions were forcible or illegal, they wrote.
Lawful conduct, they wrote, is insufficient to establish the offense.
They wrote that "not every hindrance to a police investigation rises to the level of a colorable offense under West Virginia Code."
Carney worked for attorney Michael Clifford of Charleston, who represented Walter Harmon.
Police suspected Harmon was present at the murder of Collins, who had cooperated with police in a drug investigation.
Jarvis, Harmon's aunt, offered to help Clifford and Carney.
Carney and Jarvis interviewed Carmella Blankenship and Valerie Friend, who were present at the murder. Blankenship and Friend said Harmon wasn't there.
Carney and Jarvis offered to find shelter for Blankenship outside Mingo County. She accepted, and they took her to a hotel in Charleston.
They reported her location to investigating officers.
In an interview with state's witness Alola Boseman, Carney and Jarvis repeated rumors that local law enforcement officers dealt drugs and slept with Collins.
From Friend's landlord, Carney and Jarvis obtained permission to enter her home. The landlord accompanied them. Jarvis went in and Carney stayed outside.
Jarvis removed a Bible, two pieces of paper about witchcraft, two cameras and film.
They took the film to a store, but nothing developed and they paid no charge.
They gave the rest of the items to Clifford.
At trial, prosecutor Michael Sparks persuaded jurors that Carney and Jarvis intimidated Boseman, improperly relocated Blankenship, and unlawfully entered Friend's home.
None of the Justices believed any of it.
"There was no evidence adduced at trial that the temporary removal of Ms. Blankenship from Mingo County was for the purpose of preventing her from speaking to the police," they wrote.
"Ms. Blankenship did in fact meet with the police upon her return to Mingo County several days later," they wrote.
No court order required her to remain in Mingo County, they wrote.
As for Boseman, they wrote that she continued cooperating with police after Carney and Jarvis talked to her.
As for unlawful entry, they wrote, the owner admitted Jarvis into the home.
They wrote that "there was no evidence that either of the Appellants had tampered in any way with the materials removed from the house."
Police had not cordoned off the house, they wrote, nor had they searched it.
"Consequently," they concluded, "the removal of the items in issue, which were obtained through lawful entry and then provided to the authorities, does not constitute evidence sufficient to sustain a conviction for obstruction under West Virginia Code."
Lonnie Simmons of DiTrapano, Barrett and DiPiero in Charleston, Jason Huber of Forman and Huber in Charleston represented Carney and Jarvis.
So did Clifford, who hired Carney in the first place.
Sparks represented the state.