On November 28, 1986, 22-year-old Janet Miller traveled from Indiana to the Player’s Club, a bar in Parkersburg, West Virginia, to pay a surprise visit to her boyfriend, Jeffrey Mosier. The visit turned sour when they quarreled after Miller accused Mosier of dating another woman.
Marvin Thomas, 20, who also was in the bar, bought Miller a drink and they danced one slow dance together and went separate ways in the Club. At about 11 p.m., Miller left the Club and Thomas was seen leaving not long after. Mosier remained until about 11:45 p.m. when he left as well.
The next morning, Mosier drove by the Club and spotted Miller’s car in the parking lot. He put a note on her car saying, “I knew you would do this. It’s 5:30 a.m. and I am going to work. How about you! Ha. Hope it was good and you didn’t catch anything. You are a bitch, just like the rest.”
Later that day, Miller was reported missing by employees at the hotel where she was staying. On December 10, 1986, a man using a metal detector to hunt for coins found Miller’s partially-clad body in the projection room at an abandoned drive-in movie theater in Parkersburg.
Mosier and Thomas were both considered suspects by Parkersburg police. Search warrants were executed at their homes and their cars were seized. Parkersburg police searched the vehicles and found nothing, so the cars were sent to the FBI Laboratory in Quantico, Virginia for examination. Mosier’s fingerprints were found on Miller’s car, but not Thomas’. The FBI reported finding nothing else of significance in either vehicle and returned them.
Parkersburg police searched Thomas’ vehicle a second time and ripped out the right rear seat cover and left rear floor mat and sent them back to the FBI. This time, the FBI said it found one tiny bloodstain on the bottom of the seat cover and a single hair on the floor mat.
The FBI said electrophoresis testing on the stain determined that the combination of enzymes in the bloodstain was present in 1.3 percent of white people and that Miller fell in that small group. The testing consumed the sample, however, leaving nothing for the defense to test later.
A witness told police that not long after Miller disappeared, Thomas came to a gas station and asked that blood be cleaned off the back seat. He said a friend had given him a package of deer meat and that the blood had leaked through the wrapping.
Witnesses at the bank where Thomas worked said he stopped wearing a diamond ring after Miller disappeared and that he appeared to have scratches on his arms.
In 1987, Thomas, who had never before been in trouble with the law, was charged with first degree murder, first degree sexual assault and kidnapping.
He went on trial in the fall of 1987. A medical examiner testified that Miller had been beaten, raped and strangled. The hair found in the car was consistent with Miller’s hair, the analyst said.
Thomas could not be excluded as the source of semen found in the victim and on her clothing, the expert testified.
A FBI lab analyst testified that the single blood stain found on the car seat was in a small population group that included Miller.
Mosier testified that he saw Miller have a drink and a dance with Thomas before she left the Club and that Thomas left not long after.
Thomas denied killing Miller and testified that he went home after leaving the Club on the night Miller was last seen.
In September 1987, a Wood County Circuit Court jury convicted Thomas of all three charges. He was sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole on the murder charge, plus consecutive sentences of three years for the kidnapping and 10 years for the rape.
In July 1992, the West Virginia Supreme Court set aside the conviction, ruling that Thomas’s defense attorney had been precluded from effective cross-examination of the FBI testing because the bloodstain had been consumed in the testing process and because no photographs were taken of the testing. Instead, the testing evidence consisted of oral testimony by the FBI analyst and what the court said were “hard-to-decipher” laboratory notes.
“The State therefore deprived Marvin John Thomas of his right to a full and fair cross-examination of the expert who performed the electrophoresis test,” the Supreme Court ruled.
The Court also expressed concern about the possibility of police misconduct in what it called “the mysterious appearance of the bloodstain and solitary hair in Mr. Thomas’s automobile after the FBI returned the car to the Parkersburg police.”
“In any reasonable mind, a serious question of how that stain and single hair came to be found in the car is raised,” the Court said. Only two inferences could be drawn: Either the Parkersburg police in its initial search and the FBI in its initial search did not do their jobs properly or the evidence was planted. The Court said neither option was “particularly comforting, but the possibility of (the evidence being planted) is very real and raises doubts about the credibility of the evidence and the police.”
Thomas went on trial for a second time in May 1993. The FBI analyst testified at this trial that someone other than Thomas likely left the semen found on the victim’s clothing. Moreover, the medical examiner testified that while witnesses at the Club said Miller only had one drink, her blood alcohol content of .06 suggested more than one drink—raising the possibility that she went somewhere else after leaving the club and had more drinks.
A private forensic analyst hired by the defense said that a semen stain on the victim’s skirt and semen on a vaginal swab could not have come from Thomas. The analyst said that the hair could have come from either Miller or Thomas.
Thomas again testified and denied killing Miller.
On June 8, 1993, the jury, after less than three hours of deliberation, acquitted Thomas. He later filed a lawsuit seeking damages, but the case was dismissed.
– Maurice Possley