New trial in Mingo drug murder

By Justin Anderson | May 5, 2009

CHARLESTON – Two Mingo County residents convicted of killing a drug informant and sentenced to death will get new trials.

Southern District Federal Judge John T. Copenhaver gave George "Porgie" Lecco and Valerie Friend new trials because one of the jurors in their trial was under investigation for child pornography.

Lecco and Friend were sentenced to death in 2007 for killing Carla Collins, who was an federal drug informant.

Copenhaver on Monday granted Lecco's and Friend's motions for new trials because juror William Griffith failed to answer questions on the juror questionnaire truthfully and that he did not reveal he had been under investigation since Nov. 27, 2002.

Federal prosecutors missed that Griffith's name was on the jury list and he served on the juries that decided Lecco's and Friend's guilty and recommended the death penalty for the 2005 murder of Collins.

In addition to the murder charge, Lecco and Friend were convicted on other drug related counts.

Griffith did not reveal on his questionnaire that he'd had associations with the U.S. Attorney's office related to the child pornography investigation or that he'd previously been arrested four times on drug and driving charges.

A special agent with the FBI who'd been assigned the Griffith investigation – which went dormant in 2004 – had discovered the irregularity when he contacted Griffith several days after the jury found Lecco and Friend guilty in May 2007.

The agent was contacting Griffith to inform him that the U.S. Attorney's office was declining to pursue the investigation against him and to arrange for the return of Griffith's computer hard drive, which had been seized.

Griffith told the agent that timing would be an issue because he was serving jury duty. The agent said he could meet him near the Kanawha County Courthouse, to which Griffith replied that it was federal jury duty.

The agent immediately alerted federal prosecutors in the Lecco and Friend case, according to Copenhaver's memorandum on the motions for a new trial.

Federal prosecutors disclosed the potential problems with Griffith's service on the jury during a hearing on May 23, 2007. But neither federal prosecutors nor the defense lawyers were opposed to his continuing to serve on the jury, which, six days later, recommended death for Lecco and Friend.

In arguing against their motions, federal prosecutors had alleged that defense lawyers saw a potential advantage in having Griffith continue to serve on the jury.

Copenhaver dismissed this.

He said the real problem of Griffith's service was not the omissions that he'd been previously arrested on criminal charges, but that he admitted fear that the fact that he was being investigated by the federal government for suspected child pornography might be revealed during Lecco and Friend's trial.

Copehaver said Griffith's assertion that he was fair and impartial on the jury was "hollow."

"One would reasonably expect a juror faced with these compromising circumstances to entertain a number of thoughts impacting his impartiality," Copenhaver wrote. "First, he might misguidedly think he could please the sovereign concerning the ongoing investigation of him if a prosecution verdict was returned.

"Second, he might think he would have increased leverage in avoiding prosecution once the prosecutor made the link between the ongoing investigation and his jury service. Third, he might wholly misinterpret as a 'wink and a nod' the contact during trial by the FBI suggesting the imminent, and long-awaited, return of his computer."

Copenhaver continued: "The looming potential of further investigation or prosecution – by the very same entity charged with prosecuting defendants Lecco and Friend – resulted in a burden of Griffith's impartiality that can fairly be said to have affected the fairness of the trial and sentencing hearing."

U.S. District Court case numbers: 2:05-00107-01 and 2:05-00107-02

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