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Posted Feb. 29, 2012

Innocence Project Clinic Seeks to Help Exonerate 'Culpeper Three' of 1996 Murder

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Eric Weakley

The Law School's Innocence Project Clinic says that Eric Weakley of Culpeper falsely confessed to a 1996 murder. They are preparing to file a petition for clemency with Gov. Bob McDonnell.

The University of Virginia School of Law's Innocence Project Clinic is preparing to ask Gov. Bob McDonnell to grant clemency to a Culpeper man they believe was wrongfully convicted of second-degree murder in 2001.

Contact: Brian McNeill

The man, Eric Weakley, who was 15 at the time of the crime, falsely confessed to being culpable in the 1996 murder of Thelma Scroggins after investigators interrogated him repeatedly, fed him information about the crime and led him to implicate two other men, said Matthew Engle, legal director of the Innocence Project Clinic.

"The police interrogate [Weakley] and the first thing he says is that he doesn't know anything about the murder," Engle said. "They continue to interrogate him over and over again over a course of weeks. They just really wore him down, basically."

Weakley and the two men, Michael Hash and Jason Kloby — which the Innocence Project Clinic calls the "Culpeper Three" — were all charged with the murder. Kloby was tried and acquitted, but Hash was convicted and sentenced to life in February 2001.

On Tuesday, Judge James C. Turk of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia overturned Hash's capital murder conviction, based in part on the Innocence Clinic's work in producing a recantation by Weakley. Turk ordered that Hash be released or retried within six months.

"There is sufficient evidence that corroborates Weakley's recantation to render it credible," Turk wrote in a memorandum opinion.

Matthew Engle

Matthew Engle

"Specifically," the judge wrote, "during a May 11, 2000, interview of Weakley, Investigator [Scott] Jenkins asked Weakley 'Where did (Kloby and Hash) tell you that they shot [Scroggins]?'' and Weakley answered 'Once in the head and once in the chest.' It was not until Investigator Jenkins asked the same question approximately five more times, admonishing Weakley by stating 'We can't have you add anything into it' and 'I don't want you to add to that something, whether it be the chest, the toe or anything else' that Weakley altered his story and said 'They shot her in the head.'"

Hash, who has always maintained his innocence, has been seeking to have his conviction thrown out. His lawyers contend that he was wrongfully convicted on the basis of Weakley's false testimony and on the discredited word of a career jailhouse informant, Paul Carter.

With the help of the Innocence Project Clinic, Weakley signed an affidavit last March recanting his confession and testimony against Hash. In his affidavit, Weakley stated that although he believed it at the time, his testimony at Hash's trial had not been the truth. "I have never been to Ms. Scroggins' house, and I had nothing to do with her murder," he wrote. "I also have no reason to believe that Michael Hash had anything to do with her murder. I am innocent of this crime, and I believe Michael Hash is also innocent of this crime."

Deirdre Enright

Deirdre Enright

Deirdre Enright, the clinic's director of investigations, called the results of Weakley's initial interrogation by police a "classic false confession."

"Although at first Eric denied having any knowledge or involvement in the crime, law enforcement repeatedly let him know they did not believe or accept that answer," Enright said. "They showed him photographs and suggested correct answers to him, they asked the same questions over and over until they got the answers they wanted, and when he gave answers they didn't like, they said things like 'We can't have you add anything into it.' These are the common threads in false confession cases."

Enright said that the law enforcement officers’ conduct in the cases of the Culpeper Three is remarkably similar to other high-profile wrongful conviction cases.

"These are the tactics that law enforcement are found to have used in many of the big, false-confession cases — the Memphis Three, the Norfolk Four, the Beatrice Six, the Central Park Five, and now the Culpeper Three," she said. "All these cases involve relatively young people and coercive and improper interrogation tactics. The defendants are pitted against each other, and fed misinformation, becoming legal enemies — when, in fact, all they truly share is their innocence."

Enright and Engle said it appears that Culpeper authorities transferred Hash to the Albemarle-Charlottesville Regional Jail for two nights so he would be in the same cell block as Carter, a well-known jailhouse informant. Carter went on to testify that Hash admitted to the murder while they were in jail together.

Hash's supposed confession, Enright and Engle said, never actually occurred.

"What the judge is basically saying here is that the commonwealth had in its possession but withheld evidence that would have destroyed Carter's credibility," Engle said. "And if you take Carter out of the picture, all that's left is a false confession by Eric Weakley."

Weakley, who was ultimately convicted of second-degree murder, served over six years in prison. Since his release, he has struggled to find work, with the exception of the occasional job for relatives, such as landscaping work.

"Eric was a victim too," Engle said. "He was coerced into a false confession and spent almost seven years behind bars. He had a baby at the time. He missed some of the most important years of her life. He’s also had to live with the stigma of being a convicted murderer, and he’s still on probation."

Weakley lives in Culpeper with his family, including his daughter and wife, who is pregnant.

Kloby, who was acquitted of the murder, has also struggled, Enright said.

"Even though he was acquitted, this whole ordeal has traveled with him and made his life more difficult," she said. "When we interviewed Jason, he told us that even after he was acquitted, he was still perceived and treated by many people as someone who had simply gotten away with murder."

The clinic instructors said Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli can appeal Judge Turk’s decision freeing Hash. If Cuccinelli does not appeal, it will be up to a local prosecutor to decide whether or not to retry the case. However, in light of Weakley’s credible recantation and the new information regarding Paul Carter, Engle and Enright described the prospect of a new prosecution as "unthinkable."

Third-year law student Brett Blobaum worked on Weakley's case last year. Initially, he said, Weakley was skeptical of getting involved with the criminal justice system that took nearly seven years of his life. Yet as the clinic began to piece together what happened, Weakley "became a notably different person," he said.

"Being able to provide some of the crucial evidence that lead to Hash being exonerated lifted a huge weight off of his shoulders," Blobaum said. "Now, Weakley’s name needs to be fully and finally cleared as well to correct as much as possible the gross injustice inflicted upon these young men."

For the Innocence Project Clinic, the next step is to petition the governor to grant clemency for Weakley. Four law students — Rebecca Cohn, Jennifer Becker, Vanessa Nickerson and Rhuju Vasavada — are working this semester to prepare a petition for clemency and a documentary film about Weakley that will be submitted to the governor.

"We're hoping the video is a chance for him to sort of meet Eric and to see what he feels and what he's been through," said Nickerson, a second-year law student.

Becker, a third-year law student, said she hopes their work helps put a human face on Weakley's request for clemency.

"We're hoping through this video and this petition for clemency that we can show why clemency is necessary in this situation and how having this felony on his record has stunted his growth as a productive citizen in the state of Virginia," said Becker, a third-year law student. "Most jobs won't hire you as a convicted felon. It's hard to even find a place to live."
 

Cohn, Nickerson, Becker, Vasavada

From left: Innocence Project Clinic participants Rebecca Cohn, Vanessa Nickerson, Jennifer Becker and Rhuju Vasavada.
The law students are preparing materials to submit to Gov. Bob McDonnell to ask for clemency for Eric Weakley.