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Supreme Court denies new trial for double-murderer

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The West Virginia Supreme Court has overturned a circuit judge's decision and denied a new trial for a Milton man who appealed his 1999 double-murder conviction after a juror revealed that she was indirectly connected to the case.

In a 3-2 decision released Friday afternoon, the court ruled that Michael E. Brown had a fair trial, even though the juror failed to, among other things, disclose that her son was set to appear before Cabell Circuit Judge Dan O'Hanlon on criminal charges in another case.

In 1997, prosecutors said, Brown walked into a home in Salt Rock and shot two people dead in order to steal drugs.

During jury selection in Brown's trial, juror Brenda Wickline did not tell lawyers that her son had been indicted on criminal charges and was scheduled to stand trial in front of the same judge, according to the Supreme Court opinion.

Wickline also did not disclose that she had "heard of" Cabell County Assistant Prosecutor Joseph Martorella, who was the prosecutor in her son's case and whom the state listed during jury selection as having an affiliation with the Brown case.

Finally, Wickline did not speak up when she realized that her son's attorney represented one of the witnesses in Brown's case.

During a post-trial deposition, Wickline explained that she withheld the information partly because the trial process intimidated her and because she was ashamed that he son was in criminal trouble, according to the opinion.

She maintained, however, that she was impartial during the trial, and deliberated her verdict without bias, the opinion states. She also pointed out that, if she were biased, "she would have been more likely to have been sympathetic [to Brown] due to the fact that her son had also been arrested and charged with a crime," the opinion states.

Because of Wickline's admissions, Cabell Circuit Judge John Cummings had overturned Brown's convictions and ordered a new trial. In their decision, Justices Robin Davis, Brent Benjamin and Margaret Workman overturned Cummings' decision, and reinstated Brown's convictions.

Chief Justice Menis Ketchum and Justice Thomas McHugh dissented from the decision.

Ketchum said Brown's original appeal claimed that prosecutors did not have any evidence that linked him to the murders, just testimony of a "self-serving criminal" witness, according to Ketchum's dissenting opinion.

Matthew Fortner and Joe France allegedly were with Brown when he shot the two men in the house. Ketchum pointed out that Fortner and France were later arrested in Florida for an armed robbery and were found to be in possession of the gun Brown reportedly used in the double murder.

"Those circumstances, coupled with a problematic jury, concerning which is now added the material nondisclosures of juror Wickline, suggest a result at trial which is forever tainted," Ketchum said.

Reach Zac Taylor at zachary.taylor@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5189.


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