Charges against a West Liberty man in a vehicular homicide case were dropped this week after his defense raised concerns the investigation into the crash had tainted two key witnesses.
The allegations against Matthew G. King, 22, were dismissed after a joint motion filed July 15 by the Champaign County prosecutor’s office and King’s attorney, James M. Skogstrom.
A Champaign County grand jury indicted King in April on charges of aggravated vehicular homicide, aggravated vehicular assault, vehicular assault and operating a vehicle while under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
The charges stemmed from a June 14, 2015, crash.
King, then 20, was the driver, and the crash killed one of King’s passengers, Mackenzee R. Hartley, 18, and injured another, Mayci Powell, 17. All three were ejected from the vehicle. Hartley had recently graduated from Mechanicsburg High School.
Skogstrom sought the dismissal, stating that the case had become tainted because a sheriff’s department investigator and an attorney re-interviewed two witnesses and, through questioning, may have asked them leading questions that caused them to change their stories. Springfield attorney Stacey Pavlatos is representing Hartley’s family in a civil wrongful-death claim against King, Skogstrom claimed.
Skogstrom, in his motion seeking the dismissal, said the interviews deprived King of his rights to due process and stated that they amounted “outrageous governmental misconduct.”
In the memorandum, Skogstrom claims a large amount of new evidence was delivered to the defense on July 13.
Part of the evidence is a new statement from a witness who may have been the first person to the scene of the accident. The witness was first interviewed at the scene by the Champaign County Sheriff’s Office.
Skogstrom stated that the witness was re-interviewed by Captain David Rapp of the Champaign County Sheriff’s Office and Pavlatos. Pavlatos interrogated the witness personally, Skogstrom’s motion claimed.
Hartley family in their efforts to seek wrongful death claims.
“It is clear from (Rapp’s) narrative that counsel for the Hartley family encouraged the decedent’s mother to talk to (the witness) to see if he would provide additional information,” Skogstrom states. “The result of the interview is that over a year after the accident, following some careful leading of the witness, by counsel for the decedent’s family, the witness now states that he recalls the defendant uttering a critically important statement to a first responder. Such a dramatic recollection at this late date is remarkable indeed.”
Skogstrom claimed that another witness, whom he said was previously supportive of King, was also re-interviewed by investigators in a way that could have tainted that person’s testimony.
“As deeply troubling is the fact that additionally, another critical witness in this case has previously been interviewed by law enforcement,” Skogstrom states. “The ultimate result of the interview left a potential defense witness clearly shaken and troubled as a result of law enforcement efforts to tamper with a witness’s testimony while purportedly represented by counsel for the decedent’s family.”
“As a result of over-zealousness on the part of certain law enforcement officials, the investigation in this matter has been tainted beyond repair,” Skogstrom said. “Certain aspects of the investigation constitute such outrageous governmental conduct that it is no longer possible for this defendant to receive a fair trial. ”
A joint motion by the two parties asked that the indictment be dismissed and for King to be ordered to pay costs in the matter. King’s bond has been terminated, but he still has to pay the court costs of $2,950.47.
Skogstrom expressed relief for his client in the matter. “It was a horrible tragedy and it’s just sad,” Skogstrom said.
Champaign County Prosecutor Kevin Talebi did not respond to calls for comment.
Thank you for reading the Springfield News-Sun and for supporting local journalism. Subscribers: log in for access to your daily ePaper and premium newsletters.
Thank you for supporting in-depth local journalism with your subscription to the Springfield News-Sun. Get more news when you want it with email newsletters just for subscribers. Sign up here.