U.Va. Innocence Project Clinic Seeks to Exonerate 'Culpeper Three' of 1996 Murder

March 2, 2012 — The University of Virginia School of Law's Innocence Project Clinic is preparing to ask Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell to grant clemency to a Culpeper man it believes was wrongfully convicted of second-degree murder in 2001.

The man, Eric Weakley, who was 15 at the time of the crime, falsely confessed to being culpable in the 1996 murder of Thelma Scroggins after investigators interrogated him repeatedly, fed him information about the crime and led him to implicate two other men, said Matthew Engle, the clinic's legal director.

"The police interrogate him and the first thing he says is that he doesn't know anything about the murder," Engle said. "They continue to interrogate him over and over again over a course of weeks. They just really wore him down, basically."

Weakley and the two men, Michael Hash and Jason Kloby – who the Innocence Project Clinic calls the "Culpeper Three" – were all charged with the murder. Kloby was tried and acquitted, but Hash was convicted in February 2001.

On Tuesday, Judge James C. Turk of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia overturned Hash's capital murder conviction, based in part on the Innocence Project Clinic's work in producing a recantation by Weakley. Turk ordered that Hash be released or retried within six months.

"There is sufficient evidence that corroborates Weakley's recantation to render it credible," Turk wrote in a memorandum opinion.

Hash, who was sentenced to life in prison and who has always maintained his innocence, has been seeking to have his conviction thrown out. His lawyers contend that he was wrongfully convicted on the basis of Weakley's false testimony and on the discredited word of a career jailhouse informant, Paul Carter.

With the clinic's help, Weakley signed an affidavit last March recanting his confession and testimony against Hash. In his affidavit, Weakley stated that although he believed it at the time, his testimony at Hash's trial had not been the truth.

"I have never been to Ms. Scroggins' house, and I had nothing to do with her murder," he wrote. "I also have no reason to believe that Michael Hash had anything to do with her murder. I am innocent of this crime, and I believe Michael Hash is also innocent of this crime."

Deirdre Enright, the clinic's director of investigations, called the results of Weakley's initial interrogation by police a "classic false confession."

"Although at first Eric denied having any knowledge or involvement in the crime, law enforcement repeatedly let him know they did not believe or accept that answer," Enright said. "They showed him photographs and suggested correct answers to him, they asked the same questions over and over until they got the answers they wanted, and when he gave answers they didn't like, they said things like 'We can't have you add anything into it.' These are the common threads in false confession cases."

Weakley, who was ultimately convicted of second-degree murder, served more than six years in prison. Since his release, he has struggled to find work, with the exception of the occasional job for relatives, such as landscaping work.

"Eric was a victim too," Engle said. "He was coerced into a false confession and spent almost seven years behind bars. He had a baby at the time – he missed some of the most important years of her life. He's also had to live with the stigma of being a convicted murderer, and he's still on probation." Weakley lives in Culpeper with his family, including his daughter and wife, who is pregnant.

Kloby, who was acquitted of the murder, has also struggled, Enright said. "When we interviewed Jason, he told us that even after he was acquitted, he was still perceived and treated by many people as someone who had simply gotten away with murder," she said.

The clinic instructors said Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli can appeal Turk's decision freeing Hash. If Cuccinelli does not appeal, it will be up to a local prosecutor to decide whether or not to retry the case. However, in light of Weakley's credible recantation and the new information regarding Paul Carter, Engle and Enright described the prospect of a new prosecution as "unthinkable."

Third-year law student Brett Blobaum worked on Weakley's case last year. Initially, he said, Weakley was skeptical of getting involved with the criminal justice system that took nearly seven years of his life. Yet as the clinic began to piece together what happened, Weakley "became a notably different person," he said.

"Being able to provide some of the crucial evidence that lead to Hash being exonerated lifted a huge weight off of his shoulders," Blobaum said. "Now, Weakley's name needs to be fully and finally cleared as well to correct as much as possible the gross injustice inflicted upon these young men."

– by Brian McNeill