ST. LOUIS — A death row inmate has asked the Missouri Supreme Court for a new trial, saying new evidence undermines a conviction that was key to his death sentence and that investigators whose questionable conduct led to the overturning of another capital case also mishandled his case.
John Middleton, 54, was sentenced to death for the 1995 killings of Randy Hamilton and Stacey Hodge in rural Mercer County and of Iowa resident Alfred Pinegar in neighboring Harrison County. Prosecutors say Middleton was a methamphetamine dealer who killed the three people because he feared they might snitch to law enforcement. His girlfriend pleaded guilty in 1998 for her involvement in the three shooting deaths.
Middleton doesn't have an execution date, but the state Supreme Court issued a show cause order for him in January, signaling to his lawyers that they should put forward any arguments as to why an execution date shouldn't be set.
In a series of court filings, Middleton's lawyers lay out their argument for why they think he deserves a new trial in the Pinegar case. That conviction was cited as an aggravating factor justifying the death sentences he received for the two subsequent murder convictions, so a reversal of the Pinegar conviction could affect those sentences.
Among other things, Middleton's attorneys contend that he couldn't have killed Pinegar. They say a Missouri Highway Patrol sergeant provided a forensic scientist with the wrong date on which insect remains were retrieved from Pinegar's body — a method used to determine the time of death.
That scientist, an MU entomologist, now says that his revised calculations show that Pinegar died one day later, when Middleton was in jail in southern Iowa on an unrelated charge.
The lawyers also submitted a sworn affidavit from a new witness who says he was beaten in front of Pinegar's corpse by two rival meth dealers to scare him into silence.
The witness said he was told, "There's already been three people killed. You want to be number four?"
He says the two dealers then beat and raped his girlfriend, to whom he is now married. The Associated Press isn't naming the witness to protect the identity of his wife because she is the alleged victim of a sexual assault.
The lawyers also prominently invoke the case of Mark Woodworth, whose two previous convictions in the shooting death of his Chillicothe neighbor, Cathy Robertson, were overturned. Prosecutors haven't said whether they intend to charge him again in her death.
In that case, a Boone County circuit judge appointed by the state Supreme Court said prosecutors failed to turn over key evidence to Woodworth's lawyers, and overlooked numerous conflicts of interest among prosecutors, a judge and law enforcement, calling it a "manifest injustice." The judge chastised the Livingston County sheriff for allowing a private investigator hired by the victim's family to "inexcusably" lead the murder inquiry along with Chief Deputy Gary Calvert.
Middleton's lawyers say Calvert was among three members of the North Central Major Case Squad who were involved in the investigations that led to the convictions of Woodworth and Middleton. They accuse members of the investigative team, which included members of the sheriff's department, local police departments and the Highway Patrol, of hiding evidence that could have benefited Middleton's defense and failing to investigate the possible roles of their own drug-dealing informants whose testimony led to Middleton's convictions.
Calvert has denied any wrongdoing in previous interviews.
"The Major Case Squad that assembled for the murders in Harrison and Mercer counties in June 1995 freighted credibility on the erratic, self-serving accounts of known meth dealers and criminals," the lawyers wrote in a February petition. "The squad's reporting — and suppressed reports — reflect (their) successful steering of law enforcement away from them and instead toward (Middleton and a co-defendant)."
Middleton's attorneys and a spokeswoman for Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster declined to comment, citing the pending litigation.
In its response to Middleton's new petition, the state dismisses the revised insect collection time frame and new testimony from the former drug dealer who claims he was beaten.
That dealer testified that authorities never interviewed him about the three killings attributed to Middleton, even though one of his assailants admitted to participating in the attack against the dealer when interviewed by a state trooper on the North Central Major Case Squad.
"The affidavit is not credible," the Attorney General's Office responded, calling the new witness a "former drug dealer who attempts to shift blame for the murder to a different drug dealer. ... None of Middleton's claims has any legal merit."
The response didn't elaborate as to why the state thinks the new witness would seek to shift blame for Pinegar's slaying elsewhere.
Middleton's petition also notes that the sheriffs of Harrison and Grundy counties paid the same meth supplier accused in that beating $1,000 in exchange for his testimony against Middleton while also arranging to have drug and firearm charges against him dropped in exchange for that testimony. The state responded that since the supplier's testimony wasn't allowed at Middleton's first trial, the payoff didn't affect his initial conviction.
As in the Woodworth case, Middleton is asking the state Supreme Court to appoint a "special master" to review the evidence should it decline to grant him a new trial.