On the morning of July 14, 1996, the body of 74-year-old Thelma Scroggins, a retired mail carrier and church organist, was found in her home in Lignum, Virginia. She had been shot four times in the head.
The first investigator concluded, based on crime scene evidence, that a single assailant had committed the crime. The victim’s purse was missing, as was her truck. The purse was found in the truck a month later in a wooded area.
A resident of the neighborhood, Billy Scott, came under suspicion because he had a .22-caliber rifle—the type of weapon believed used in the shooting—but he was not charged and the investigation went cold.
In late 1999, the investigation was reopened and police questioned Alesia Shelton, who had been convicted of a robbery and shooting at the front door of a house in which the victim survived. Shelton told police that her cousin, Michael Hash, and two others, Jason Kloby and Eric Weakley, had killed Scroggins.
Shelton said that on the night of the murder, Hash and Kloby were talking about killing someone and how they were going to do it that night. She said that sometime later, Kloby told her that he and Hash had gone into the house and shot Scroggins. She said that Hash “nodded his head and said yes—yeah.”
Police questioned Weakley and later said that Weakley admitted that around 9 p.m. on July 13, 1996, he, Kloby and Hash went to the house and asked for a cup of sugar. When Scroggins turned her back, she was attacked and beaten, then shot. Weakley said Hash shot her twice and Kloby then shot her twice more.
Hash, 19, who was 15 at the time of the murder, was arrested along with Weakley, 20, and Kloby, 22, in May of 2000. Kloby faced the death penalty, but Weakley and Hash did not because they were juveniles at the time of the crime, though both were charged as adults.
Prosecutors sought the death penalty when Kloby went on trial in Culpeper County Circuit Court in October 2000. There was no physical evidence linking any of the defendants to the murder. Weakley gave his account of the murder and Shelton testified to Kloby’s admission.
Defense lawyers presented a parade of alibi witnesses who testified that Kloby was in Pennsylvania visiting his father on the day of the crime. On November 3, 2000, a jury acquitted Kloby after less than two hours of deliberation.
Hash went on trial before a jury in February 2001. Weakley again testified about how the crime occurred and Shelton again testified about the conversation relating to killing an old woman and Hash’s admission to participating in the crime.
The prosecution also called Paul Carter, a convicted drug dealer serving a federal prison sentence, who testified that Hash confessed to the murder when they were both housed at the Albemarle-Charlottesville Regional Jail after Hash was arrested.
Carter’s account of Hash’s confession had several inconsistencies with the actual facts of the case. He denied that he had been promised anything in exchange for testimony.
Hash testified in his own defense and admitted he had been present some months prior to the murder when Weakley and Kloby discussed committing a robbery, but denied any involvement in the Scroggins murder.
Hash said he was with a friend several miles away at the time of the crime. Numerous other witnesses confirmed his alibi.
During closing argument, Culpeper County Commonwealth Attorney Gary Close told the jury that Carter had not been promised any deal and that Carter was truthful when he denied there was any deal.
On February 9, 2001, the jury convicted Hash and he was sentenced to life in prison without parole.
On June 13, 2001, Weakley pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and was sentenced to 20 years. All but six years and eight months were suspended because of his cooperation with authorities.
Hash’s appeals in state court failed and in April 2010, a federal petition for writ of habeas corpus was filed. The petition alleged that Hash’s trial lawyers had failed to provide an adequate legal defense for a variety of reasons, including their failure to uncover that Carter had been an informant against at least 20 people in three federal prosecutions and that he had written more than two dozen letters seeking a sentence reduction in which he said prosecutor Close had promised to help.
Ultimately, Carter’s 180-month prison term had been cut to 60 months, which allowed him to be released almost immediately.
On February 28, 2012, a federal judge vacated Hash’s conviction and ordered a new trial. The judge found a “cavalcade of evidence” demonstrating outrageous police and prosecutorial misconduct as well as a failure of Hash’s trial lawyers to adequately investigate the case and present a defense based on an alternative suspect.
The judge ruled that Carter lied at the trial about not having a deal and that Close knew it. Close, the trial prosecutor, conceded that the statement was a lie and that his closing argument was misleading.
The judge found that Hash was intentionally moved from the Culpeper County Jail to be in the same unit with Carter, who was a well-known jailhouse snitch. The judge also found that the prosecution had failed to disclose a deal with Weakley for his testimony. During the habeas proceedings, Weakley recanted his testimony and said he had no knowledge of the crime. He said that police had provided him with the details of the crime.
The judge ruled that the prosecution also failed to disclose that Weakley and Shelton both failed polygraph examinations regarding their statements implicating Hash. The judge also noted that Hash’s lawyers developed further evidence suggesting that Scott—the initial suspect in the crime—was the actual killer.
During the habeas proceedings, the rifle that was seen in Scott’s home after the murder was tested and the results were that it was “not possible to definitively eliminate” the gun as the murder weapon.
The judge also found that at least one police investigator testified falsely at Hash’s trial when he said interviews with Weakley were not recorded,. Those interview tapes were never provided to the defense.
On March 13, 2012, Close, who had been elected to his sixth term in 2011, resigned.
The following day, Hash was released from prison, pending a retrial.
On August 20, 2012, the charges against Hash were dismissed.
In December 2012, Hash filed a federal wrongful conviction lawsuit against Culpeper County and numerous law enforcement officials and prosecutors. The lawsuit was settled in July 2014 for an undisclosed amount.
– Maurice Possley