Failure to disclose to jurors a secret prosecution deal with a key witness has prompted reversal of one of two murder convictions in the gruesome 1981 killing of college co-eds.
Joseph Shelton is entitled to a new trial in the first degree murder and kidnap Kevin Thorpe in 1981, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals held Friday.
The panel found the prosecution’s suppression of a government deal with a key witness, Norman Thomas, violated Shelton’s Brady rights, which require disclosure to the defense of any potentially helpful evidence.
But the court left in place the second degree murder conviction in the death of Laura Craig in the same kidnap and killing.
There is a “reasonable probability that had the jury known of the prosecution’s serious doubts as to Thomas’s mental competence and of its successful efforts to prevent him from obtaining a competency test until after he testified, it would have reached a different result on that count,” wrote Judge Stephen Reinhardt.
Shelton was sentenced to 40 years to life in prison.
Thorpe and Craig were college students on their way to school in January 1981 when Shelton, Thomas and a third man, Benjamin Silva, saw them at a gas station in Madeline, California. The pair were abducted and taken to Shelton’s cabin where Thorpe was chained to a tree and shot to death with a machine gun.
Thomas dismembered the body and, with Silva, dumped it in a remote location. Craig was shot at the side of a road a few days later.
Thomas was arrested for probation violation later and told police about the murders.
Shelton turned himself in a short time later and led police to Craig’s remains.
At Shelton’s trial, Thomas was the key witness against him. Shelton maintained that he was present during the crimes but did not willingly participate and was intoxicated on drugs and alcohol. He also said he feared if he resisted or tried to leave Silva would kill him and his family.
Thomas suffered severe injuries in a motorcycle accident and was in a coma for an extended period. Prosecutors in Lassen County indicated without his cooperation they might not convict Shelton and Silva, according to the court. Also, they believed psychiatric analysis of Thomas would “supply ammunition to the defense.”
The prosecutors agreed to drop the murder charge against Thomas in exchange for his testimony and agreement his mental competency would not be disclosed to Shelton or Silva.
Shelton first learned of the deal when he read a 2005 court decision granting habeas relief to Silva for a Brady violation, named for the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brady v. Maryland.
Case: Shelton v. Marshall, No. 13-15707