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Knots in Justice: When Criminal Defendants Are Tied Together

I. A Criminal Trial

Tucker and Wray were on trial for their lives. As sometimes happens, the prosecution decided to try them together in a single trial. Tucker and Wray foughtsuccessfully, with aid of a qualified criminal trial attorney—for the right to have separate trials. As it turned out, it took a very experienced criminal defense trial attorney to guarantee their basic constitutional rights. The battle for these rights to fair, separate criminal trials ended up as an appeal, going all the way to the North Carolina Supreme Court.

The facts of the homicide case were extremely complicated, involving drugs, mixed motivations, and personal relationships that had gone wrong. Also complicating the testimony was the fact of state involvement in trying to negotiate a plea agreement with one of the former defendants in the case. A jailhouse confession, questions of duress and drug-infused quarrels and lies.  There were a few certainties in the alleged $2,000 contract killing. Certainly murdered, was Cecil, the young woman who had become enmeshed in an intricate series of drug deals and police investigations regarding the Tucker and Wray families. It was also certain that both men had been convicted in their joint trial.

II. Two-for-one Trials

To begin with, it’s not uncommon for prosecutors to want to have defendants accused of a common crime to be tried together. States have dealt with this issue for a variety of reasons and with very different motives. Some states do it simply to try to save money; some states, with a bent towards winning prosecution cases, tend to want to give the prosecution this extra tool. At the same time, any time a case involving your interests also involves this issue (of being tried with a codefendant – called consolidated cases), never assume that a consolidated trial is necessary or best.

The bottom line: decisions about joint or separate trials for codefendants are so fundamentally important that you or your family member have to confer only with a qualified criminal trial attorney. This discussion should occur as soon as possible, especially whenever there’s an issue of disagreement between codefendants.

A qualified criminal trial attorney also knows that just because they may at first lose the request to separate, or sever, the trials of codefendants, the legal fight doesn’t have to end there. In this case, the smart move by the criminal trial attorney was to protect this issue. This is why it was successfully appealed, all the way to the Supreme Court, after both defendants Wray and Tucker had been convicted. It turned out to be a winning move.

By the judge’s allowing the trial of these two defendants at the same time, the criminal trial attorney pointed out that Wray had been prevented from an effective cross-examination of his codefendant. This happened because co-defendant Tucker had chosen to use the Fifth Amendment not to testify – which is of course perfectly constitutional. At the same time, Tucker’s rights blocked Wray’s rights of getting valuable testimony from Tucker.

III.  He says, They said, I said: A Family Affair

There was no shortage of contradiction between testimony here. Wray was accused of hiring a couple, Donna Tucker and her husband (Wray’s codefendant). Complicating the scenario even more, Wray had a special connection with the Tuckers: Donna was his sister.

Why wasn’t Donna Tucker also arrested and on trial? Because the State’s prosecutor decided to go after her husband and Wray, and needed insider information. Donna became the star witness for the state prosecution. In the hands of an experienced criminal trial attorney, this deal-making raises all kinds of red flags.

IV.  An offer too good to refuse?

You’ve heard it many times: “you’re innocent until proven guilty.” In these cases of consolidated trials, that’s one of the protections that is potentially challenged implicitly. Why should the State be allowed to use tools like this in order to increase the difficulty of proving a person’s innocence? Experienced criminal trial attorneys know these gambits and pre-trial moves by the prosecution. An experienced criminal trial attorney also knows how to fight these attempts to undermine guarantees of freedom and fair trials.

The facts tended to show that Donna’s involvement in the murder was conspiratorial as opposed to physical. The allegation was that she had helped arrange the abduction, planned for the cover stories, and taken Cecil’s fading pulse, as her husband beat and choked her to death. She also apparently helped dispose of Cecil’s body. Yet, for all these allegations, Donna also went through a series of loop to loop contradictions about her involvement or knowledge. This had the effect of severely undermining Donna’s credibility. In this context, it’s easy to understand that the ability to obtain testimony from a codefendant assumes even more importance.

In this case, there was evidence that Donna Tucker had been jealous of Cecil, and may have wanted her dead. Testimony established that Cecil and Tucker (Donna’s husband) had been sleeping together; an autopsy revealed that Cecil was four months pregnant (corroborating the jealousy theory). The court also particularly emphasized one part of Donna’s testimony, uncovered by the savvy criminal trial attorney. When someone had mentioned to Donna that “adultery” was not worth losing “your life over,” Donna had a telling response: “(w)hen you got the feds wrapped around you, you don’t get in any trouble.” Again, the criminal trial attorney pointed out, Tucker was blocked from obtaining competing testimony, allowing Donna’s self-interested (inculpatory) testimony to go largely unchallenged.

Conclusions:    

Ironically, some judges may allow a consolidated case to go ahead based upon a false promise that it “serves the defendants’ best interest.” Most often, this is passed off under the idea of the guarantee to have a speedy trial. This doesn’t mean the judge is always wrong to consolidate trials: but it does mean that the advocate you need to count on consolidated cases is your own, well-qualified, knowledgeable criminal trial attorney.

We’ve already talked about some of the contradictions and self-interest in the testimony of this case. An experienced trial attorney knows that this is likely to happen: the more severe the possible penalties, the more contradictions. An experienced criminal trial attorney also knows many of the investigative techniques used by police departments. For example, in this case a jailhouse informant made an allegation about Cecil’s boyfriend, who also claimed to be the father of the unborn child. This is a common tactic that has to be dealt with by a knowledgeable criminal trial attorney.

These facts opened the door for evidence regarding Donna’s (un)trustworthiness and her alleged tendency to “lash out” and to act out of jealousy. The North Carolina Supreme Court agreed with the criminal defense attorney that new, separate trials were required for both of the defendants.

If you, your loved ones, have questions involving any criminal laws, your legal rights with trials or investigations, please contact us.  You will speak with an expert criminal trial attorney, who can best answer your questions about how your specific case, whether separate or consolidated, or trial or appeal should be best addressed.  There is never a fee for this initial consultation.

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