Lawyers: Missouri condemned man deserves new trial

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by Associated press

KMOV.com

Posted on July 15, 2014 at 4:23 AM

Updated Tuesday, Jul 15 at 6:50 AM

ST. LOUIS (AP) -- Court filings on behalf of a Missouri man scheduled to be executed this week for killing a suspected drug snitch in rural northern Missouri contend that the wrong man was arrested and convicted, citing a new witness and other new evidence.

John Middleton, 54, is scheduled to die at 12:01 a.m. Wednesday. He would be the sixth Missouri inmate put to death this year and the eighth since November.

Middleton was a methamphetamine dealer sentenced to death after he was convicted of the 1995 murders of Randy “Happy” Hamilton and Stacey Hodge, and the killing of Alfred Pinegar a week-and-a-half later, because he feared they would go to police.

An affidavit signed by a witness who came forward in February suggests that two other men were the real killer. Middleton’s attorney, Joseph Perkovich, said police and prosecutors botched the investigation, allowing the real killers to fashion the case against Middleton.

“There’s just way too much that’s really wrong with this case,” Perkovich said Monday.

Harrison County Sheriff Josh Eckerson disagrees. Eckerson said he revisited the case after the new witness came forward. His determination: Middleton was the killer.

“They had some off-the-wall theories that somebody else had committed these crimes,” Eckerson said. “There’s no evidence to state that anything happened other than what had previously been reported in the court system.”

Middleton’s attorneys have asked the Missouri Supreme Court for a new trial, and have asked the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to halt the execution. A separate case in U.S. District Court claims Middleton is too mentally ill to be executed. They have also asked that a special panel consider clemency, rather than requesting clemency directly from Gov. Jay Nixon. The Missouri Attorney General’s office was still weighing that request.

By the mid-1990s, methamphetamine was rampant in rural Missouri. Police were fighting back, and on June 10, 1995, several drug suspects were arrested in sparsely populated northern Missouri.

Middleton was not among them, but allegedly told a friend, “The snitches around here are going to start going down.”

A day later, according to court records, Middleton and his girlfriend met Hamilton and Hodge on a gravel road. Prosecutors said Middleton shot both of them in the back and the head, then put the bodies in the trunk of Hamilton’s car and abandoned it.

Pinegar was, like Middleton, a meth dealer. Prosecutors said Middleton shot Pinegar in the face on June 23, 1995, in a farm field near Bethany, then dumped the body over a fence.

Middleton was arrested for Pinegar’s murder days later. On July 10, 1995, Hamilton’s car was discovered in the woods, the decomposing bodies of Hamilton and Hodge in the trunk.

Prosecutors cited ballistics evidence and testimony from Middleton acquaintances who said he admitted to the crimes. Middleton’s girlfriend pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in 1998 for her involvement in the three killings. She is serving a life sentence.

But in February, a witness whose name is not disclosed because he fears retribution signed an affidavit saying that two rival meth dealers drove him to a rural area and showed him Pinegar’s body.

“They thought I was a snitch and brought me to the body to show me what they would do to me if I talked about their meth business,” the witness said in the affidavit.

He said the men told him, “There’s already been three people killed. You want to be number four?”

The new witness said the two dealers then beat him with a baseball bat and raped his girlfriend.

Eckerson said his investigation found no evidence to back up the new claims. He said he is convinced that Middleton was the real killer.

The attorneys also cite new scientific evidence. They say a Missouri trooper 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 said in an affidavit earlier this year that his revised calculations show that Pinegar died one day later than originally thought, when Middleton was in jail in southern Iowa on an unrelated charge.

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