The Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals has affirmed the Mobile County Circuit Court's decision to dismiss all charges against George Martin, a former Alabama State Trooper who spent 15 years on death row after being wrongly convicted of killing his wife, because prosecutors knowingly suppressed exculpatory evidence.
Hammoleketh Martin died in a car fire under suspicious circumstances in Mobile County on October 8, 1995. Evidence did not support an allegation that her husband, George Martin, was responsible for her death and the district attorney's office did not file charges. Four years later, after Mr. Martin sued law enforcement authorities for defamation, the attorney general's office charged Mr. Martin with capital murder, alleging he killed his wife to collect insurance money.
The prosecution relied on circumstantial evidence to obtain a conviction on May 10, 2000. Mr. Martin was tried during an election year in front of Mobile County Circuit Court Judge Ferrill McRae, who ran a TV ad in support of his re-election campaign listing the names of convicted murderers whom McRae had sentenced to death, including “State Trooper Martin, Murdered and Burned Wife.” When the ad ran, the jury had convicted Mr. Martin but voted to spare his life. Judge McRae had not yet rendered his decision, but the ad announced that he would give Mr. Martin death. He then overrode the jury's sentence and imposed the death penalty on July 25, 2000.
After Alabama's appellate courts denied relief on appeal, new attorneys challenged George Martin's conviction and presented evidence from 28 witnesses and 104 exhibits during an evidentiary hearing in 2012 before a new judge. Based on the evidence presented, the court concluded that the State violated the law when it failed to disclose to Mr. Martin's trial counsel multiple pieces of evidence that were exculpatory and favorable to the defense.
The State's only evidence placing Mr. Martin in the vicinity where the car fire occurred on the night of Mrs. Martin's death was a single witness's testimony that he saw a black man in an Alabama State Trooper car in the area earlier that evening, but the State suppressed evidence that the witness could not identify Mr. Martin as the trooper he saw that night and actually identified another state trooper in a photo array that was not disclosed to the defense.
The defense argued at trial that Mrs. Martin carried a gas can in her car and the fire was the result of an accident. The prosecutor told the jury at trial that there was no gas can found in the car and that none of Mrs. Martin's friends or family had seen her carry a gas can in her car, but notes that were not given to the defense showed that Mrs. Martin's own sister told police she saw a gas can in her sister's car.
The State also illegally suppressed evidence that pointed to other suspects in Mrs. Martin's death, the court found.
In 2013, the court concluded that "[t]his accumulation of errors caused 'a breakdown in the adversarial process that our system counts on to produce just results,'" and ordered a new trial.
After the appeals court upheld that ruling, Mr. Martin moved to dismiss the indictment against him, arguing that the State's misconduct could not be cured by a new trial more than 16 years after the original trial and more than 20 years after Mrs. Martin's death.
The trial court held an evidentiary hearing and ordered both parties to submit proposed orders, and on March 11, 2016, it dismissed the indictment because "the State's willful, wrongful conduct, combined with the passage of time, had resulted in the death or lack of memory of several key witnesses who had testified at Martin's original trial as well as Martin's inability to thoroughly investigate the exculpatory evidence that was disclosed after his trial had occurred."
The State appealed, and on December 15, 2017, the Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed, explaining that the prosecution's willful misconduct can result in dismissal of the charges where the prosecutor intentionally withholds exculpatory evidence or exhibits a pattern of discovery violations.
In this case, the appeals court found both that "there was evidence indicating that the State knowingly suppressed exculpatory evidence" and that Assistant Attorneys General Donald Valeska and William Dill, who were prosecutors in Martin's case, had been found to have committed discovery violations in another capital case.
Further, the appeals court affirmed the conclusion that a new trial could not cure the prejudice against Mr. Martin because too much time had passed for him to investigate the exculpatory evidence the State had withheld and the State's most important witnesses no longer remembered the statements they made to law enforcement and therefore could not be cross-examined at a new trial.
Accordingly, the court upheld the "extreme sanction" of dismissing with prejudice the indictment against Mr. Martin.