Man facing life for officer's murder gets new trial

By Steve Korris | Nov 24, 2009

CHARLESTON -– Michael Martin, facing life in prison without mercy for his part in the murder of Beckley policeman Chuck Smith, has won a new trial.

The Supreme Court of Appeals decided on Nov. 23 that Raleigh County Circuit Judge Harry Kirkpatrick permitted trial testimony that prejudiced jurors against Martin.

Kirkpatrick should have kept prosecutor Kristen Keller from asking state police captain Scott Van Meter to vouch for the credibility of other witnesses, the Justices ruled.

"That line of questioning, while possibly motivated by the emotions surrounding the death of a police officer, was wholly unnecessary," they wrote in an unsigned opinion.

In oral argument on Sept. 22, Keller called her questions stupid.

The Justices doubted her. "A review of the transcript reveals the line of questioning pursued by the appellee appears calculated, rather than stupid," they wrote.

They also expressed concern about the performance of Martin's trial lawyers, Dewitt Daniell and Richard Lorensen of Greenbrier County's public defender office.

Martin might have prevailed on a habeas corpus petition due to ineffective assistance of counsel if he hadn't succeeded on direct appeal, they wrote.

Kanawha County public defenders Gregory Ayers and Ira Mickenberg won the appeal.

Smith died in 2006, when drug dealer Thomas Leftwich shot him.

Martin, trusting Smith's pose as a drug buyer, had taken him to Leftwich's apartment.

Martin gave a statement that he didn't know Leftwich and had obtained his telephone number that day. He told police he didn't know Leftwich carried a gun.

Grand jurors indicted Leftwich and Martin on first degree murder charges.

A jury convicted Leftwich, and the Supreme Court denied his petition for review.

When Martin's case came to trial, he didn't testify or offer evidence. He relied on a defense of entrapment.

Keller presented testimony from Jasminda Gonzalez and police corporal William Reynolds, friends of Smith who witnessed the murder from a parked car.

Keller then called trooper Van Meter, who pronounced their testimony credible.

According to the Supreme Court, Van Meter's endorsement of their honesty helped jurors overlook conflicts in their testimony.

The Justices wrote that "there was conflicting evidence concerning the facts leading up to the actual shooting that had an impact upon the appellant's entrapment defense."

They wrote that although Martin told police that Smith and Reynolds approached him about buying drugs, Reynolds testified that Martin approached them about selling drugs.

They wrote that although Gonzalez said she saw Smith hand something to Leftwich, Reynolds didn't mention any exchange.

"Thus, undeniably there was the need for the jury to determine which testimony it found was credible," they wrote.

Keller's credibility questions invaded the province of the jury and violated clear legal principles, they wrote.

West Virginia judges may allow evidence of truthful character only after the other side has attacked a witness, they wrote.

They found no evidence that Martin attacked Gonzalez or Reynolds.

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