“If the Martin case is not one which is appropriate for dismissal, there may never be one.”
That’s not a quote from a defense brief or a member of the defense team’s mouth. It is a direct quote from Judge Robert H. Smith’s March 11, 2016 order dismissing George Martin’s capital murder indictment with prejudice. “Had this case been tried fairly,” he adds, “all would have had resolution of this matter long ago.” Indeed, though the State is appealing the judge’s decision, the trial court’s order reveals the disturbing truth that the Alabama Attorney General’s office has engaged in intentional misconduct in the Martin case for more than a decade.
Though we have previously covered the case, we add some additional details here in light of these latest developments. George Martin, a former State trooper in Alabama, was charged with killing his wife, Hammoleketh Martin, for pecuniary gain. She died in a fire inside her car in 1995. Because the Mobile County District Attorney’s Office decided not to prosecute the case, the Attorney General’s office took over. The State alleged that Martin intentionally set his wife’s car on fire while she was inside, killing her to collect life insurance payments. At trial, Martin’s defense was that the death was an accident caused by a mishap with the gas can the victim kept in the car.
The State prevailed at trial and won a conviction in 2000. The jury initially returned an 8-4 recommendation for a life sentence, but the trial court judge (then-Judge Ferrill McRae) overrode that recommendation and sentenced Martin to death. (This death sentence was soon lifted by the Alabama Supreme Court with instructions for additional consideration of the jury’s sentencing recommendation; after that additional consideration, Judge McRae again imposed a death sentence despite the jurors’ earlier vote in favor of mercy.) The Alabama judiciary denied Mr. Martin’s direct appeals.
In post-conviction proceedings in 2008, Martin’s defense team requested access to the prosecution’s files because it believed the prosecution had withheld exculpatory evidence. Those motions sparked an epic legal battle that lasted several years in which the Attorney General’s office fought tooth-and-nail to keep its files from the opposition. On three separate occasions, the prosecutors launched mandamus petitions in an effort to shut down the trial court’s orders to turn over the information the defense had requested. The first effort succeeded, temporarily. But, the trial court then made the “good cause” finding the appellate court requested in order to compel disclosure. The State’s second effort to stave off discovery also succeeded temporarily, but in 2010 the trial court again granted the defense’s discovery motion. The State filed another mandamus petition to avoid fulfilling the order; finally the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals and the Alabama Supreme Court denied the State’s petition.
So, what happened when the State at long last turned over its file? What had it been sitting on for so many years? Why was the Attorney General’s office so profoundly reluctant to give Martin an opportunity to look at the documents compiled during its investigation? Perhaps unsurprisingly, the discovery contained a treasure trove of exculpatory evidence that would have facilitated Mr. Martin’s defense at trial.
The suppressed evidence included information revealing that the only State witness who placed Martin in the vicinity of the crime scene actually identified someone else as the person he saw. James Taylor had told investigators that he had seen a “large” black man in a State trooper uniform in the area. Mr. Martin is 5’6” tall. Not only did Taylor never identify Martin specifically, but it turned out that when police showed him a photo lineup of African-American state troopers who worked in the region, Taylor identified a different trooper. Alabama’s Attorney General’s Office kept this evidence from Martin’s defense team.
There’s more. Prosecutors at trial ridiculed Martin’s claim that the fire was the result of an accident involving a gas can in the car. They pointed out repeatedly that the defense produced no evidence that there was a gas can found at the scene. They stated that none of the victim’s friends or family members had seen her carry a gas can in her car. Yet, post-conviction discovery revealed that the victim’s sister told police that she knew Hammoleketh Martin had carried a gas can in the vehicle.
In response to this exculpatory evidence—and more (including tips given to police identifying other potential suspects)—the trial court granted Mr. Martin a new trial in 2013. Judge Smith’s 119-page ruling followed an evidentiary hearing in which he heard from 28 witnesses and reviewed over 100 exhibits. The State, apparently never willing to concede in this matter, appealed the new trial ruling to both the Criminal Court of Appeals and the Alabama Supreme Court; both courts declined to disturb Smith’s decision.
Now, Smith has dismissed the case against Martin altogether so that he cannot be retried. While the standard for granting a new trial did not require evidence that the prosecutors’ misconduct was intentional, Judge Smith’s order dismissing the indictment this month explains that the extraordinary remedy of dismissal requires that the State have intentionally engaged in prejudicial conduct. With more than seven years’ worth of experience on the case, Smith concluded that that’s exactly what the State did in Martin’s case.
Like Judge Kozinski’s recent opinion in a Ninth Circuit case, Judge Smith’s order dismissing the indictment specifically identifies the prosecutors responsible for the misconduct. Three members of the Alabama Attorney General’s office were named: Don Valeska, Gerri Grant, and William Dill. The order notes that both Valeska and Dill were involved in another prosecution upended by Brady violations: the capital murder case against Daniel Wade Moore. A trial court granted Moore a new trial in 2003 when it came to light that Valeska had failed to turn over an exculpatory FBI report. Moore was eventually acquitted in 2009. Perhaps Valeska’s involvement in Martin and Moore is put into context by the following statement to an Australian news outlet. When asked about a case in which there were no eyewitnesses, he responded, “We say the opposite. In Alabama, when you’re the last person to be seen with the deceased, that’s almost enough evidence to go to a jury on its own.”
In addition to Valeska, Dill, and Grant, the dismissal order also identifies Major Calhoun of the city of Mobile police. Calhoun served as the primary police investigator and was present throughout the trial. Judge Smith pointed out that Calhoun saw the prosecutors make false and misleading representations about the gas can and James Taylor’s identification of a State trooper but “felt no obligation to intervene” during the trial.
Smith did not struggle to conclude that the prosecution’s misconduct was intentional or willful. He also highlighted that the State took nearly a decade to finally comply with its constitutional obligations and turn over the exculpatory documents. The court also found prejudice because Mr. Martin’s ability to obtain a fair trial has been eviscerated by the combination of the AG’s misconduct and time’s passage. The case, in the court’s words, is an injustice to both the defendant and the victim’s family members. “Had this case been tried fairly, all would have had resolution of this matter long ago.” Significantly, the judge explicitly recognized that the outcome is “not a windfall to Defendant Martin, who has served fifteen years in solitary confinement on death row . . . .”
There are no guarantees the dismissal of charges will survive the appeals process, but they should. Judge Smith’s action represents an important but too-rare acknowledgement that the State is not above intentional misconduct. The very fact that the Alabama Attorney General’s office vociferously litigated post-conviction discovery issues while sitting on a cache of exculpatory evidence raises its own questions, about not just the misconduct at trial, but also the prosecutors’ approach to their ongoing obligation to provide defendants with exculpatory evidence. The office’s intransigence was ultimately its downfall, but the correction has come late for Mr. Martin, who has spent well over a decade sentenced to death.
Time will tell if Valeska, Dill, and Grant receive any sort of discipline from the state bar association. Research demonstrates that such discipline is exceedingly rare. It appears that Dill remains a prosecutor with the AG’s office; Valeska is now with the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Middle District of Alabama where it appears he is receiving pats on the back there; and Grant is providing luxury travel services.