Supreme Court hears appeals inYoungblood and Murray cases
The appeals of two Morgan County criminal cases were on the docket when the West Virginia Supreme Court sat in Romney last Tuesday, April 17.
Appealing for new trials were Denver A. Youngblood, who is serving a long prison sentence for sexual assault, and Brian Daniel Murray, who is presently in home detention serving the third and final year of a sentence for failing to render aid at a fatal auto accident.
Four of the five Supreme Court justices heard oral arguments about the local cases as well as legal arguments in two lawsuits of statewide interest. The court's decisions will be announced in the future.
Making the trip from the State Capitol to the Hampshire County Courthouse were Chief Justice Robin Davis and Justices Joseph Albright, Brent Benjamin and Elliot Maynard. Justice Larry Starcher was unable to attend.
The Hampshire County Circuit Courtroom has an elegant, historic atmosphere and is roughly three times the size of the Morgan County courtroom that was destroyed by fire last August.
The room was filled with attorneys, spectators and those involved in the cases. Half of the seating was given over to students from Potomac State College and public schools in Hampshire, Hardy and Pendleton counties. The student groups had each studied a case in preparation for watching the court in action.
What they saw were justices who were well-versed in the cases and who peppered the attorneys with questions and comments that got straight to the point. Unlike a hearing where the lawyers get to develop their sides, the oral arguments before the Supreme Court are basically held so the justices can ask what they want.
Attorney Robert Stone represented Denver A. Youngblood, Jr., who claims the state did not disclose evidence that might have helped his defense.
Youngblood was convicted in 2003 of two counts of sexually assaulting a young woman, two counts of brandishing a firearm and one count of indecent exposure. He is presently serving a 26-to-56 year prison sentence for those crimes, as well as a one-to-15 year sentence for delivering heroin in a separate incident.
The victim of the sexual assault was one of three teenaged girls that Youngblood and a co-defendant had picked up in Hagerstown and brought to a house in Berkeley Springs in July, 2007.
Several days after the incident, the homeowner reported to West Virginia State Police that various acts of vandalism had been done by the girls while they were in her house. She showed the trooper a letter that was allegedly written by two of the girls who had been in the living room with Joseph Pitner while Youngblood was in a bedroom with the victim.
One line of the lengthy, obscene note said the victim said "thanks" to Denver for performing oral sex upon her. The trooper returned the note to the homeowner, saying it wasn't relevant. Defense Attorney Stone later learned about it.
Prosecutor Debra McLaughlin said she had never been shown the note and that it was immaterial since it turned up in relation to a destruction of property complaint. The investigating officer didn't see it as important since it was largely about the vandalism, wasn't written by the victim and was given to Pitner, not Youngblood.
But Stone felt the note might have convinced the jury that the sex acts were consensual.
Justice Benjamin, however, questioned how they could be consensual when Youngblood threatened the victim with a weapon and was also convicted of brandishing a weapon.
He and Justice Maynard also asked how Youngblood's defense could be hurt by withholding a note that the victim didn't even write.
"Mr. Youngblood is one of the most evil men I've seen in my eleven years on the bench," said Justice Davis. "He gets no sympathy from me."
But, Davis added. he should have gotten a fair trial. She said: "I believe in this case, the trooper got it flat wrong."
Looking at it from another angle, Justice Maynard asked how Youngblood could argue now that it was consensual sex when, in his statements to police at the time, he denied that it ever happened. "You can't have it both ways," he said.
Davis said the U. S. Supreme Court obviously had some legal interest in the case since they'd held 19 conferences before sending the matter back for state consideration.
Defense attorney Craig Manford handled the appeal of Brian "Danny" Murray, who attended the hearing. Also present were a number of Murray's relatives and the family of Justin McAnulty, the 19-year-old bicyclist who was killed when Murray's car hit him on a June night in 2004.
In late February 2005, Murray was found guilty of failing to stop and render aid, and of failing to maintain control of his vehicle.
Murray had returned to the scene more than once and, early the next morning, found McAnulty's body along U. S. 522, north of the U. S. Silica plant.
Manford argued that Murray had not gotten a fair trial because Circuit Judge Gray Silver compressed a five-day trial into three days. The defense case did not even begin until 4 p.m. on Friday afternoon and the jury was still deliberating after midnight, he said.
Manford said it appeared the jury had compromised on the verdict rather than coming to a clear decision on guilt or innocence. He felt this was due to the late hour.
The state was represented by Christopher Smith of the Attorney General's Office. He said the judge had told the jury they could go home and continue deliberating on Monday, but that a snow storm was predicted.
Justice Maynard pointed out that Prosecutor Debra McLaughlin had even suggested continuing the trial on Monday, but Murray told the judge he was willing to go on with it. Manford said Murray made that decision against his advice.
Maynard replied that if Murray said to proceed, he couldn't later complain to the court about his own decision.
Manford also argued that the prosecutor had unfairly reminded the jury that Murray had not testified on his own behalf.
He said McLaughlin should not have said things like: "Mr. Murray has to take responsibility for his actions." At one point, she asked the jury how she could get Murray to answer the charges against him.
Justice Albright asked State's Attorney Smith how a defendant could take responsibility if he chooses not to testify.
Smith replied that Murray should have taken the responsibility to stop, call the police and render aid in the first place.
"That's a good argument," Albright said.
When talk turned to whether Murray's sentence was fair, the justices said they would have to do more research.
Murray was sentenced to one-to-three years in prison. After serving a little less than a year, he was released to two years home confinement without being given any time off for good behavior in jail.
Smith said state law doesn't provide for "good time" when a person is serving a sentence in home confinement.
"We may have to look at the statute," Justice Maynard said.
Windmills vs. homes
The first of two civil cases on the court's docket involved an attempt to stop an electric production facility with 200 windmills at Mt. Storm in Grant County.
Former Supreme Court justice Richard Neely represented seven landowners who claimed the noise from the project would destroy their property values.
Neely said English Common Law, upon which West Virginia is based, included nuisance cases going back to 1610.
Neely broadened his argument by claiming the windmill project is a boondoggle that is merely a way for large energy firms to tap into public money and tax breaks for alternate energy.
He told the court that wind-generated electricity is extremely inefficient and requires huge numbers of turbines and large amounts of land to provide any meaningful amount of electricity. Powering San Francisco would require most of Wyoming to be filled with windmills, he alleged.
Neely said windmills seem to be a hobby horse of environmentalists who rule out coal, oil and other sources of fuel.
The project's attorney, Samuel Brock, said the company had gotten all necessary state approvals and that the landowners' recourse is to sue for damages later, rather than stop the project now.
Neely argued that since the windmills would be an ongoing nuisance, they would affect the nearby properties forever, so there is no easy remedy if they were built.
A group of Morgan County farmers trekked to Romney to show support for the West Virginia Farm Bureau in the second civil case of the day.
It involved the Hartley Hill Hunt Club in Ritchie County, which sought to overturn the decision of Ritchie County voters in banning Sunday hunting. If the court should find for the hunting club, it would also result in tossing out the referendum results in Morgan and most of the state's other counties where voters have voted against hunting on Sunday.
Hunt Club attorney Jason Huber argued that the State Constitution gives citizens the right to hunt and that no public vote can take away that right, especially on private land.
"Constitutional rights are not subject to election," Huber said.
Attorney Steven Jones made the argument for the Ritchie County Commission and for the Farm Bureau, which opposes Sunday hunting. He said this is not a constitutional issue since there is no "right to hunt" like there is a "right to bear arms."
Jones said there was nothing wrong with letting the voters decide in local option elections, as in Ritchie and other counties.
Justices Albright and Maynard said the state constitution gives people the right to "lawful hunting," but this means hunting as permitted by the laws of the state.
The justices set no dates for when they would decide on the cases they heard last week in Romney.