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Les Burns

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In October 2012, a police officer in Dryden, Virginia, stopped a vehicle and arrested one of the occupants, 31-year-old Les Burns, for possession of narcotics.

After Burns offered to work as a confidential informant for police in return for leniency on the drug charge, he was referred to Christopher Cook, a Bedford County sheriff’s detective. Cook was overseeing an investigation of the illegal purchase and sale of prescription pain medications code-named “Pain Train.”

Cook later came to believe that Burns was “playing both sides of the field.” In March 2013, Cook arrested Burns for being part of a conspiracy involving several others who were illegally buying and selling pain medication. Cook claimed that during an interrogation conducted by him and federal prosecutor Ashley Neese, Burns admitted illegally distributing the drugs—an assertion that Burns denied.

One month later, in April 2013, an attorney for a female witness who had been called before the grand jury investigating the drug sales informed Neese that in December 2012, Cook had met with the witness, picked her up in his police car, drank alcohol, told the witness that he was not married (he was), kissed the witness, exposed his penis and tried to pull her onto his lap. The attorney said the witness reported that Cook told her that she was a target of the investigation (she was a witness only) and that if she were arrested, he would perform a strip search on her. As a result of this incident, Cook was immediately terminated from the investigation, reassigned and demoted.

In December 2013, a federal grand jury indicted 11 individuals, including Burns, on charges of conspiracy and drug distribution. Burns was charged only with conspiracy. After the indictment was returned, a fellow prosecutor informed Neese that the information about Cook’s behavior with the witness had to be disclosed to defense attorneys in the case because the evidence could impeach Cook’s credibility. Neese, however, did not turn over the information; she later claimed it would have been a violation of Cook’s privacy and that Justice Department guidelines did not require disclosure.

In May 2014, prior to trial, Burns’ defense lawyer filed a motion to exclude evidence that Burns confessed when Cook interrogated him. The motion claimed that Cook and Neese had coerced the confession. Cook, the motion said, had threatened to take away Burns’ girlfriend’s children.

Neese filed a motion to provide information under seal to U.S. District Judge Norman Moon, who presided over the case, asking the judge to review the materials and decide whether disclosure was necessary. Neese provided 17 pages of documents detailing how Cook had been a deputy sheriff in Botetort County, Virginia but resigned after he was investigated for allegedly misusing the Virginia Criminal Information Network.

Regarding the claims made by the grand jury witness against Cook, Neese only informed the judge that it involved some “flirtatious” behavior but provided no documents. She omitted all information about Cook’s lewd actions and false statements to the witness.

Even so, Judge Moon ruled that Cook’s conduct “occurred during the course of conduct involving Burns, involved a witness in the same overall investigation, and (was) officially deemed inappropriate.” The judge ordered the information disclosed to Burns’ defense attorney because it “tend(s) to impeach (Cook) and that it therefore must be disclosed.”

Neese, however, did not disclose the information.

In May 2014, at a hearing on the motion to exclude Burns’ statements to Cook, Neese requested that the defense be prohibited from cross-examining Cook about his behavior. Neese told the judge, “You’re the fact finder in this and know everything that’s going on.”

Cook testified that Burns had admitted involvement in trafficking the medication. Burns testified and denied that he made such admissions. Burns’ wife testified that another detective had threatened to take her children—a threat she had told Burns about.

Judge Moon denied the motion to suppress Burns’ statements.

At trial, In June 2014, Cook testified and said Burns had admitted involvement. Judge Moon prevented the defense from cross-examining Cook about his conduct saying that the information—that he had flirted with a witness—was not relevant to Cook’s truthfulness.

Several of Cook’s co-defendants testified against him and implicated him in the conspiracy, although all of them admitted that they had been promised leniency in their own cases in return for their testimony. On June 5, 2014, the jury convicted Burns of conspiracy. He was sentenced to 11 years and four months in prison.

Burns’ appellate attorney requested that the information about Cook that had been disclosed to Judge Moon be revealed to the defense. In response, for the first time, the prosecution’s appellate lawyers disclosed all of the information about Cook to the defense, prompting a defense motion for a new trial.

On June 14, 2016, Judge Moon granted the motion and vacated Burns’ conviction. The judge ruled that Neese had “consciously provided only a skeletal summary” of Cook’s actions and had characterized his contact with the witness “as flirtatious” when it “might be more appropriately called sexual assault” and “left out important and significant details, such as Cook’s lies.”

The judge ordered a new trial. Noting that Neese had been advised by two different fellow prosecutors to disclose all of the information to the defense, Judge Moon ordered that Neese be removed from any further involvement in the case.

On July 21, 2016, the prosecution dismissed the conspiracy charge and Burns was released.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 8/1/2016
State:Fed-VA
County:(Western)
Most Serious Crime:Drug Possession or Sale
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:2013
Convicted:2014
Exonerated:2016
Sentence:11 years and four months
Race:Caucasian
Sex:Male
Age at the date of crime:32
Contributing Factors:False Confession, Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No