720 F.2d 375 (4th Cir. 1983), 83-6086, Webb v. Hutto

Docket Nº:83-6086.
Citation:720 F.2d 375
Party Name:David Montgomery WEBB, Appellee, v. Terrell Don HUTTO, Appellant.
Case Date:November 02, 1983
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit
 
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Page 375

720 F.2d 375 (4th Cir. 1983)

David Montgomery WEBB, Appellee,

v.

Terrell Don HUTTO, Appellant.

No. 83-6086.

United States Court of Appeals, Fourth Circuit

November 2, 1983

Argued June 7, 1983.

Page 376

Richard B. Smith, Asst. Atty. Gen., Richmond, Va. (Gerald L. Baliles, Atty. Gen. of Va., Richmond, Va., on brief), for appellant.

Harry F. Bosen, Jr. (Harry F. Bosen, Jr., P.C., on brief), for appellee.

Before WIDENER and MURNAGHAN, Circuit Judges, and HAYNSWORTH, Senior Circuit Judge.

MURNAGHAN, Circuit Judge:

David Montgomery Webb was convicted in the Circuit Court for the City of Salem, Virginia on July 24, 1980 for possession of, and for possessing with intent to distribute, a controlled substance. Sentence was suspended as to the possession count and twelve years were imposed on the possession with intent to distribute count, but six years were suspended, leaving a sentence of six years to be served.

We consider an appeal by the Commonwealth from a grant to Webb of the writ of habeas corpus by the United States District Court for the Western District of Virginia, 564 F.Supp. 405. The grant was limited to the conviction for possession with intent to distribute, Webb having withdrawn that portion of his petition for habeas corpus regarding his conviction on the charge of simple possession.

The police had been properly prudent and had obtained a warrant to search a house for suspected marijuana possessed with intent to distribute. They executed the warrant on October 30, 1979, and, upon their entry of the house, they caught Nancy W. Thompson, the owner, and Virgil D. Spence with quantities of a powder which later proved to be methamphetamine. Spence was cutting powder over scales. Thompson stood by with scissors.

Webb had responded to the knock of the police at the door. He was shown to have resided at the house whenever he visited the Roanoke area. The crucial question was whether Webb was a participant or merely an innocent bystander in what the evidence established to be a developed drug operation.

All three, Webb, Spence and Thompson, were indicted. Webb was the first to come to trial. Proceedings commenced on Thursday, July 17, 1980, in the Circuit Court for the City of Salem, Virginia. Both the prosecution and the defense announced their readiness for trial. Webb waived trial by jury, the witnesses who counsel indicated would give evidence were sworn and separated, and the Commonwealth's first witness, a police detective, testified. He was effectively cross-examined in a manner raising substantial doubt as to the existence of a connection between Webb and the drugs. The testimony was that, on answering the knock of the police officials executing the warrant, Webb took no steps to warn Spence and Thompson. Nor were the drugs found with clothing possessed by

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Webb, but rather were in locations which were reasonably to be associated with Thompson.

Thereupon the prosecuting attorney woke up to a perilously large gap in his case. He moved for a continuance, to obtain testimony from Spence and Thompson in order to bolster the case against Webb. The prosecutor explained:

In the preparation of this case, the Commonwealth has not attempted, although there are two other co-defendants, has not attempted to enter into any sort of plea agreement wherein a co-defendant whether that co-defendant be Mr. Webb or Miss Thompson or Mr. Spence would testify against any of the other two co-defendants. We have approached counsel ... co-counsel about whether or not they felt it would be in their client's best interest to testify voluntarily for the Commonwealth. And in preparing for trial yesterday I touched base once again the office of Mr. Spence's attorney, that being Mr. Charles Phillips. Mr. Phillips being out of town, Mr. Doherty received the message and being unaware of this particular case attempted to contact Mr. Spence as to whether or not he perhaps might wish to testify in this case.... We're asking a continuance, so to speak, or a recess until Mr. Phillips who is Mr. Spence's attorney, who is presently on vacation would return to town on Monday, so that he might properly advise his client whether or not it would be in his best interest to voluntarily testify.... I would only assume that Mr. Spence would, if he desired to testify as to the truth, from what the Commonwealth knows of the case the truth would be [sic] have tremendous impact on this particular case. And we respectfully ask the Court to grant the Court ... grant the Commonwealth that recess so that we might determine whether or not Mr. Spence does in fact wish to testify as to the truth of the facts before the Court today.

The federal district judge who presided in the habeas corpus proceeding, whose findings we, of course, respect, determined "that the Commonwealth Attorney requested the continuance solely because of his realization that the case could not be made against the petitioner without the testimony of at least one of the co-defendants." He went on to point out:

Neither of the co-defendants [Spence and Thompson] had been subpoenaed to testify at the trial held that day [July 17, 1980], that one of the co-defendants, Virgil Spence, was present in the courthouse during the trial of petitioner, with the knowledge of the Commonwealth's Attorney, and that despite his presence, the co-defendant was not called to the stand to determine whether he would answer questions or not. Counsel representing Spence at the time of the trial indicated in the habeas proceeding that he instructed his client to "tell the truth and co-operate to the best of his ability" should he be subpoenaed. 1

The Salem Circuit Court concluded that, in the interest of justice, it being unclear whether Spence's counsel would or would not advise him to testify, it would be best to continue the trial for five days, until the 22nd of July, 1980. On that date Spence and Thompson testified. The evidence of Thompson was especially damaging to Webb. 2 The determination of guilt which followed was well supported by the record.

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About the kindest word that one can apply to the prosecutor's failure to subpoena Spence and Thompson, and his failure to establish in advance of trial that they would not be advised to decline to testify on self-incrimination grounds is "sloppy." 3

The petition for habeas corpus was grounded on three asserted constitutional infirmities:

A...

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