Wednesday, November 7, 2007
In 1999, Tim Masters was convicted of murder in connection with the stabbing death of Peggy Hettrick in 1987. Masters, who was 15 years-old at the time of the murder, has now made a bid for a new trial, claiming that he received the ineffective assistance of counsel at trial and that the prosecution failed to disclose material exculpatory evidence to him.
You can find the full details of the case in this Denver Post article, but here are the basics. Early one morning in 1987, 37 year-old Peggy Hettrick was discovered dead in a field with several knife wounds; her left nipple and areola had been carefully removed, and the front of her body had been wiped clean of blood. Officers went door-to-door to see whether anyone knew about the murder, and they eventually came to Clyde Masters' house, which was 100 feet south of Hettrick's body. Clyde told the officers that his son, Tim, regularly walked through the field where the body was found on his way to school and suggested that he may have seen something. When officers later questioned Tim, he admitted to seeing Hettrick's body but claimed that he didn't report it because he thought that it was a mannequin and/or that a prank was being played upon him.
The officers later learned that in his school notebooks Tim sketched dinosaurs with arrows through them, gruesome war scenes, knife wounds, and horror films such as "Nightmare on Elm Street." From this evidence and other information, the state somehow developed the theory that Tim was a "psycho killer" with deviant sexual fantasies.
It was determined that Tim's mother died almost four years to the day before Hettrick's death, and officers came to the bizarre conclusion that because both women had red hair, Hettrick's murder was an anniversary killing and that one year after Hettrick's death, Tim would go "beserk" and revisit either the murder scene or Hettrick's grave. Police thus set up a "sting" operation where they shadowed Tim a year after Hettrick's death, but he visited neither the crime scene nor the grave. The prosecution, however, neither disclosed this failed "sting" to Tim Masters, nor did they disclose:
-evidence that police falsley told a reporter that they were close to making an arrest, delivered the paper where the reporter reported this story to the Masters house, and then suggested that Hettrick's killer would hoard stories about the case, all as part of an (unsuccessful) attempt to get Masters to confess.
Pursuant to the Supreme Court's opinion in Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83 (1963), a new trial is warranted when the prosecution fails to timely disclose to the defendant material exceulpatory evidence. Evidence is "material" when there is a reasonable probability that its timely disclosure would have changed the outcome at trial. While it's difficult to say whether the undisclosed evidence should be deemed "material" without knowing all of the other evidence in the case, it is important to note that courts before have found Brady violations when prosecutors have failed to disclose evidence of alternate suspects, see, e.g., Commonwealth v. Bussell, 226 S.W.3d 96 (Ky. 2007), and important evidence relating to "stings," see, e.g., Banks v. United States, 920 F.Supp. 688 (E.D. Va. 1996).