A Virginia man sentenced to life in prison in 2001 savored his first night of freedom Wednesday after a federal judge overturned his murder conviction, and lambasted police and prosecutors for "outrageous misconduct" in the case.
In May 2000, police in rural Culpeper County, Va., charged Michael Wayne Hash, then 19, in the gruesome shooting death of an elderly neighbor four years earlier.
In a blistering 65-page opinion published Feb. 28, Senior U.S. District Court Judge James C. Turk slammed investigators and prosecutors in the county for a "series of lies and failures to disclose exculpatory evidence." Prosecutors withheld failed polygraph tests of two crucial prosecution witnesses, and did not disclose that another witness, a jailhouse informant, repeatedly lied on the stand.
The case represented a "miscarriage of justice" and an "extreme malfunction in the state criminal justice system," Turk wrote.
A special prosecutor appointed to handle the case has six months to decide whether to retry Hash, Turk said in his opinion. In the meantime, Hash will remain free, after a county judge released him Wednesday afternoon on a $10,000 unsecured bond.
Hash, 31, arrived at the courthouse in shackles wearing a striped prison uniform, and left in street clothes.
"Yesterday was a wonderful day," said his parents, Jeff and Pam Hash, in a statement Thursday to The Huffington Post. "We were able to take Michael home and have our first family dinner in almost 12 years."
"Right now, we're looking forward to the day when Michael's name is finally cleared and this nightmare is behind us," they said.
Gary Close, the prosecutor who tried the case, abruptly resigned as the Culpeper County district attorney after the judge's opinion. In a resignation letter, he called his office an "ethical and fair institution."
"Culpeper should be proud of their work," he said.
Hash's attorneys declined to comment on the substance of the case until it is finally resolved. But legal experts said the behavior of prosecutors and police represented a gross abuse of authority.
"It's shocking," said Laurie Levenson, a law professor at Loyola Law School and an expert on wrongful convictions. "This one was the trifecta. You name the type of misconduct, it all happened here."
No physical evidence tied Hash to the 1996 murder, which stumped police for four years. In 2000, after the election of a new sheriff, investigators arrested Hash and two other teenagers, and charged them in the crime.
One of the young men, Eric Weakley agreed to plead guilty to a lesser charge in exchange for testimony implicating Hash as the shooter. But prosecutors did not disclose that deal to the defense or the jury, or reveal that Weakley had failed a polygraph test. Weakley, sentenced to six years in prison, later recanted his testimony.
Another witness, Alesia Shelton, Hash's cousin, testified that she heard him confess to the murder. Prosecutors did not reveal that she, too, failed a lie detector test.
"Shelton's test results showed that she was deceptive on every single question asked about her statement implicating Hash," the polygraph examiner who conducted the test said later in an affidavit. "Anybody that failed the examination to this extent wouldn't be a very credible witness in my opinion."
The final key witness in the case was a jailhouse informant, Paul Carter, who testified that Hash confessed to the murder while the two were housed on the same cellblock.
Prosecutors portrayed Hash's alleged confession as a lucky break in the case. Later evidence revealed that investigators deliberately moved Hash to a neighboring county jail with the intent of exposing him to Carter, a known informant.
The two prisoners spent a single night on the same cellblock, records showed.
Also concealed from the defense counsel and the court was a deal struck between the informant and prosecutors, who later intervened on his behalf to secure a lighter sentence. Based on his cooperation with the Hash case, Carter's 15-year sentence was reduced to time served and he was released.
In his closing argument at Hash's trial, Close, the prosecutor, denied that the informant would benefit from his testimony. "There's no deal with Mr. Carter," he said. "None whatsoever."
The jury convicted Hash in two hours.