After spending 1,140 days in jail, Randal Wagoner was freed on bail, a week before he was scheduled to face trial on charges of murder and arson. The defense used expert opinions to convince the prosecutor that the state’s case, built largely on the opinions of its own experts, was weak.
The prosecutor asked the court for more time to investigate the evidence submitted by the defense. The Duval County, Florida judge who is presiding in the case decided that Wagoner has been jailed long enough on charges that the prosecutor conceded are based on weak evidence. The court granted the prosecution more time to continue its investigation, but released Wagoner on the condition that he abides by a curfew, avoids contact with the alleged victim’s family, and submits to random drug tests.
Expert Evidence Challenged
Wagoner was charged with killing Kathy Lorraine Johnson and burning down the building in which she lived. The suspicion that Johnson was murdered arose when a medical examiner concluded that Johnson’s death was a homicide caused by blunt-force trauma.
The defense hired its own expert, described in news stories as “one of the most prominent medical examiners in the country,” to review that opinion. The defense expert pointed to evidence that Johnson’s death probably was not a homicide. Confronted with that opinion, the state’s medical examiner conceded that he might have been wrong. In other words, a reasonable doubt exists that, in the view of the state’s expert, should preclude a homicide conviction.
State fire investigators based their opinion that the fire was started deliberately on a process of elimination, a technique known as the “negative corpus methodology.” The defense was able to undermine those opinions with expert evidence concerning the invalidity of negative corpus as a basis for arson analysis.
The National Association of Fire Investigators has concluded that negative corpus is “an invalid and unreliable method for purposes of determining the cause of a fire.” The NAFI alleges that “in some segments of the fire investigation community there is still deep-rooted use and reliance on this improper and unethical process.”
The defense also obtained an expert’s DNA analysis of material under Johnson’s fingernails. The defense analyst concluded that the material probably came from a man, but not from Wagoner.
Given the successful effort by the defense to undermine the prosecution’s scientific evidence, it isn’t surprising that the prosecutor admitted that her case is weak. At this point, it would be surprising if the case isn’t dismissed. That outcome is possible given a recent change of personnel in the State Attorney’s Office.
The Politics of Prosecution
Assistant State Attorney London Kite took over the prosecution in November. She inherited the case from former assistant state attorney Peter Overstreet, who was fired when Melissa Nelson beat former state attorney Angela Corey in last fall’s election. Both Overstreet and Corey had been criticized for taking an overzealous approach to prosecution that put winning ahead of justice.
Overstreet also prosecuted the case of Jerome Maurice Hayes, who was accused of robbery and held in jail for 589 days even as police found substantial evidence that he may have been innocent — including the fact his workplace said he was “on the clock” when the fire occurred. At one point, a Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office detective asked why Hayes was still in jail.
Overstreet avoided ethics sanctions in that case by assuring the State Bar that he had implemented procedures “to avoid similar occurrences.” Yet he apparently allowed Wagoner to languish in jail for nearly three years without determining whether the expert evidence upon which he relied proved Wagoner’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
The Wagoner case is a reminder to defense attorneys of the important role that expert witnesses play in casting doubt upon shaky accusations of criminal conduct. Without having expert witnesses on his side, Randal Wagoner would still be in jail.