On August 21, 1995, shortly after 3 a.m., 45-year-old Freddie Lester was shot to death in the gas station where he worked in Bluefield, West Virginia.
During the police investigation of the crime, a witness said a 17-year-old youth named Michel Hopkins was near the station on the night of the murder. Detectives questioned Hopkins, and he implicated three other youths, including 17-year-old Davie Hurt.
Police then charged Hurt and the two other youths with the murder. However, some weeks later, Hopkins changed his account and admitted that he shot Lester in the back of the head during a robbery while Hurt acted as a lookout. Hopkins said the other two youths were not involved and they were released.
After 10 days in detention, Hurt was released when a judge determined that there was no credible evidence against him and dismissed the charges. Hopkins then pled guilty to second degree murder and agreed to testify against Hurt. Hopkins story changed again: he said the crime was Hurt’s idea.
In December 1996, Hurt was again charged with the murder as a juvenile. In January 1997, the case was transferred to Mercer County Circuit Court to prosecute him as an adult.
Hurt went on trial in September 1997. Hopkins testified for the prosecution and said he shot Lester while Hurt acted as a lookout. Hopkins said the idea to rob the station was Hurt’s.
The defense presented testimony from Ginger Wheeler, Hurt’s girlfriend, that she was on the telephone with Hurt from about 11 p.m. until nearly 4 a.m.—during the time when Lester was killed.
Hurt also testified in his own defense, and said he was home at the time of the crime, talking on the phone with Wheeler.
Hurt’s mother testified that her son must have been home by midnight on August 20—more than three hours before the shooting—because the doors to the house were locked at midnight, Hurt did not have a key and she saw him in bed asleep the following morning.
The trial ended in a mistrial when jurors were unable to reach a unanimous verdict—voting 10 to 2 to acquit Hurt.
Prior to a second trial, Hurt’s attorney requested that the trial be moved out of Mercer County because of significant media coverage of the case. The motion was granted and the case was moved to Pocahontas County, where Hurt went on trial for a second time in May 1998.
The retrial was similar to the first trial, except the prosecution called members of Lester’s family who testified that after the murder and before anyone was arrested, Hurt came to their home and related details about the crime that police believed only a participant would know.
Hurt again testified, as did his mother and girlfriend. On May 29, 1998, a jury convicted Hurt of first degree murder.
Less than two weeks later, two inmates at the Pocahontas County Jail reported that Hopkins told them he had falsely implicated Hurt—that Hurt was not involved in the crime at all. A third inmate later came forward and said Hopkins made the same admission to him. Based on the statements of the inmates, Hurt’s lawyer asked for a new trial. The motion was denied and Hurt was sentenced to life in prison.
In 1999, after Hurt’s appeal was denied by the West Virginia Supreme Court, he and Hopkins were both housed in the same prison. Hopkins told Hurt he was remorseful over falsely accusing him of participating in the crime. Hopkins gave a recorded statement to Hurt’s attorney saying Hurt was not involved. Hopkins also wrote a letter to the trial judge recanting his testimony against Hurt. Based on these statements, Hurt filed a state petition for a writ of habeas corpus in 2000. Hopkins testified at a hearing on the petition and said his testimony at Hurt’s trial was false. In April 2011, the petition was granted and a new trial was ordered. The prosecution appealed and the decision was reversed in 2013.
Hurt filed a second state habeas petition, and at a hearing in 2011 Hurt presented evidence that his trial lawyers had failed to obtain telephone records that would have backed up his claim that he was on the telephone with his girlfriend at the time of the crime. In addition, the girl’s parents both testified that they were home that night and that their daughter was, in fact, on the telephone with Hurt for about four hours—during the time of the crime.
Hopkins testified, but at this hearing, he recanted his recantation, saying that Hurt was in fact involved in the shooting.
Hurt’s habeas lawyer also presented evidence that during jury selection for the retrial in Pocahontas County, Hurt’s trial lawyer—despite the fact that Lester, the victim, was white and Hurt was black—did not ask any of the all-white panel of prospective jurors if they belonged to or knew of The Alliance, a neo-Nazi group headquartered in that county.
Hurt’s habeas lawyer also presented evidence that in 1992—three years before the murder—a Bluefield police officer had severely beaten Hurt. A federal lawsuit against the police officer was later settled for a $4,500 payment to Hurt’s mother. One of the investigating officers involved in the questioning of Hopkins was the officer who had beaten Hurt, according to the evidence.
In February 2013, the judge vacated Hurt’s conviction and ordered a new trial. The judge ruled that Hurt’s trial was constitutionally unfair due to his lawyer’s failure to: call witnesses and obtain telephone records to support Hurt’s alibi, object to the two Lester family members who testified at the second trial despite an earlier ruling that they were barred from testifying, object to the transfer of the case to Pocahontas County, which is 1 percent black, and object to the prosecution’s closing argument which focused on evidence that had been stricken from the case by the trial judge. The judge said that Hopkins was an unreliable witness who was not believable.
In May 2014, the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals upheld the decision granting a new trial. In July, 2014, Mercer County Prosecuting attorney Scott Ash dismissed the case.
– Maurice Possley