For those of you who like to follow cases and not just read headlines about the allegations, I wanted to provide an update on the Matthew Cole case. It was recently settled, having just been finalized yesterday. It was originally filed in December 13, 2012. That is about average from filing to settlement/trial. It was scheduled to go to trial on March 13, 2014.
All discovery had been completed, including many depositions. And all dispositive motions, and pretrial motions, had been briefed. So anyone thinking that these are quick and easy cases to settle would be mistaken. Most of these cases (and this one was certainly no exception) are hard-fought and highly contested.
Apparently a West Virginia lawyer was charged with being an accessory after-the-fact in relation to a New Year’s Eve shooting in Charleston, which is a felony. This was reported by WCHS, as well as the Charleston Gazette. Allegedly, after his friend shot a guy after an argument over ordering a pizza, the lawyer took the guy’s cell phone and instructed him to run. And then he was allegedly uncooperative with police when they asked him the identity of the shooter.
It was reported that all of this can be viewed on surveillance footage:
“Conrad is in trouble, because police said he can clearly be seen on surveillance video taking Underwood’s cell phone, which is considered evidence, from the scene and telling the suspect to run.”
So my initial thought is, how can you view what someone is saying on surveillance footage? You can’t. We pretty much know the footage does not contain audio – since that in itself would constitute felony illegal wiretapping in West Virginia, since it would be capturing conversations for which no party has consented.
The police are the first to complain about surveillance footage when they are accused of misconduct, noting that you can’t tell everything from the video. Well you certainly cannot tell what someone is saying to another. How does a video prove that the lawyer was instructing the shooter to flee? And if you can view the cell phone being handed to the lawyer, how can you tell that the lawyer asked for it. And if a cell phone is handed to you in such a situation, does that make you a felon? What if you are a lawyer potentially representing the individual. Can you preserve evidence yourself? Are you compelled to turn over your own evidence to police at their demand? The West Virginia Rules of Criminal Procedure don’t provide for that. In fact, a criminal defendant is not compelled to provide discovery to the prosecution until and unless he or she requests discovery from the State.
As with any of the decaying “cities” in this country where you have arrogant and hypocritical leadership, the City of Charleston was quick to jump into attention-whore mode and to engage in their first attempts at poisoning the jury pool:
“It’s really surprising that someone in a position of authority, and all that he is responsible for, to participate in this criminal conduct,” Lt. Steve Cooper, with Charleston police said.
. . .
Charleston Mayor Danny Jones said he plans to file an ethics complaint with the state bar, against Conrad.
What ever happened to “innocent until proven guilty”? Is it ethical for a police officer, or mayor, to go onto TV and tell the public that an individual who has been charged, and who is presumed innocent, has committed criminal conduct? Or that the individual has abused a position of authority? Or that the person is unethical?
I’m not passing judgment on the lawyer’s actions one way or the other since I don’t know all of the facts. After all, isn’t that what police say when one of their own are accused of misconduct? Well, it’s under investigation and we don’t know all of the facts. So what if he did take the guy’s cell phone and told him to run? What negative consequences did that have? Who is a victim to the lawyer’s alleged crime? None and nobody.
On November 26, the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals issued a decision in a suit filed by the Charleston Gazette (which I posted about back in November of 2010), to enforce a FOIA request initially sent by former Gazette police misconduct reporter Gary Harki. After the circuit court refused to allow the internal files to be produced, the Gazette appealed and ended up winning at the Supreme Court.
The opinion is available in .pdf format on the Court’s website here.
Essentially the Court ruled that state police internal investigation documents are subject to production through FOIA requests, so long as the investigation has been concluded, and the allegations involve official misconduct about which the public has a right to know. I’m summarizing.
This holding did not specifically address political subdivisions, i.e., counties and municipalities. However, I don’t see any legitimate reason for treating them differently under this case law.
On the filing of the lawsuit:
Prior to the filing of the lawsuit:
Well, I said I didn’t think I would be returning to Parkersburg. But wouldn’t you know it, I’m headed back over there. Here is yet another federal lawsuit filed by myself, and my co-counsel Paul Morrison, for yet another videotaped use of force out of Parkersburg, West Virginia. This is my fourth time there. This one was already in the news a few times. With the closure of the federal courthouse in Parkersburg, this case will be litigated out of the federal courthouse in Charleston. Maybe had we filed it a couple of days earlier . . . .
We settled the Seabolt v. Vensel, et al. case late last week. The settlement amount was $135,000.00.
Charleston Gazette on Saturday:
“I first became involved with civil rights issues in Parkersburg in June of 2010,” Bryan said after the settlement was reached. “With this settlement, I sincerely believe that these issues will not be coming up again. We’ve been through three years of federal court litigation, three six-figure settlements, two jury trials and two trips to the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals.
“I’ve interacted with local leaders, police officers, citizens, local lawyers and Charleston defense lawyers, and I believe everyone is on the same page regarding Parkersburg’s future — which means that my time in Parkersburg has probably come to an end.
“Joshua Vensel is a good person who made one mistake. I uncovered no evidence of any prior acts of excessive force by him. In the end, he did right by Mr. Seabolt, and I have no doubt he will go on to lead a successful life. Lastly, I want to thank my co-counsel Michele Rusen and my opposing counsel Jim Muldoon for being great lawyers who are not afraid to do the right thing,” he said.
Parkersburg News and Sentinel:
Seabolt Settles in Lawsuit Against Parkersburg (also includes video of the incident)
There was a nice article on the front page of the Charleston Gazette this morning about the Sawyer Case.
“Today the citizens of West Virginia, Maryland, Virginia North Carolina and South Carolina have more constitutional protections than they did yesterday,” John Bryan, Sawyer’s attorney, wrote in a statement.
“As a result of today’s ruling, which affirmed the District Court for the Southern District of West Virginia, law enforcement officers will be taught to treat people differently, and that if they fail to do so, there will be consequences. Because of Brian Sawyer, and the federal court system, millions of people have more freedom. And that is something I am very proud of.”
There was also an article in the Parkersburg newspaper:
Well, off to another trial this morning.
ETA: We won the property dispute trial. We have been very blessed to have streak of wins in WV state-law easement disputes. Although they might seem boring, they are quickly becoming one of my favorite types of cases, second only to civil rights cases. I do enjoy interesting criminal cases. However, I do not enjoy the stress of gambling with someone’s liberty. I much rather prefer property rights or money. The worse case scenario is never the end-of-the-world.
Also an article in the WV Record:
- Civil Liability
- Computer Crimes
- Concealed Weapons
- Criminal Records
- Denial of Medical Care
- Domestic Violence
- Excessive Force
- Forensic Labs
- Governmental Liability
- Grand Juries
- History Series
- John H. Bryan
- Judicial Misconduct
- Law Office Tech
- Law School
- Media Coverage
- Medical Examiners
- Money Laundering
- motions for change of venue
- Negligent Homicide
- Plea Agreements
- Police Misconduct
- Preliminary Hearings
- Pretrial Hearings
- Right to Speedy Trial
- Searches and Seizures
- Self Defense
- Sex Crimes
- Sex Offender Registration
- State Agencies
- United Bank Lawsuit
- Vehicular Crimes
- West Virginia Concealed Carry Laws
- West Virginia Gun Laws
- White Collar Crime
- Wildlife Violations