Roughly a third of all cold-case murder charges filed in Hampton Roads in the past decade were later dropped, dismissed, or reduced to something else. That's the conclusion of a NewsChannel 3 investigation that tracked the outcome of cases against 38 men charged with murder in cold cases. Fifteen saw murder charges reduced to something lesser, or had the charges go away entirely.
Our research shows in many of those failed cases, police counted on unreliable witnesses or jailhouse snitches who, when it came time for court, were not deemed credible.
"They got my hopes up high," said Joyce Penny, who waited 10 years for an arrest in the Newport News murder of her son Tony Wynn. "There was finally going to be closure. And to find out the people they were relying on to testify were liars."
NewsChannel 3 found few police departments kept a separate accounting of cold-case murders. We compiled a list of arrests from records provided under the Freedom of Information Act, news archives and police news releases. Our research shows the most murder charges are dropped in Portsmouth, where the Commonwealth's Attorney disputed our methodology.
"I disagree with your conclusions completely," said Earle Mobley, Portsmouth's top prosecutor. "What we’re trying to do is to take the bad actors off the street for as long as possible. And sometimes that means we need to cut deals with people."
Mobley says he is not afraid to charge people with murder based on limited evidence. And in many cases, he will charge several people with the same murder, even though only one pulled the trigger. That eventually means some have charges reduced or dropped.
"If we can get our hooks into some of them, and charge them, we use them as witnesses sometimes," he said. "Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t."
It didn't work in the case of Vernon Mills. Mobley says police assured him a prison informant, and another witness, were willing to testify that Mills fatally shot two people in a car and wounded a third in 1998. But when Mobley sent prosecutors to talk to the inmate, the inmate declared he'd never spoken to police. And then no one could locate the other witnesses.
"That’s a tough loss for us," he said. "I clearly recognize that."
Mobley's strategy still nets more convictions than Virginia Beach prosecutors get, where detectives responding to our open-records request said they had not made an arrest in a cold-case murder in the past 10 years. A Beach Police spokeswoman responded: "Sometimes there is just not enough evidence to make an arrest."
In Portsmouth, Mobley says he doesn't care about his cold-case conviction record. He still counts it as a victory even when an accused killer pleads guilty to lesser charges. He says he could boost his numbers by ignoring tough cases, but says that's not what he was elected to do.
"That's not justice," he said. "That's not what our job is about. Our job is not to make the numbers look good. My job is to do justice here. And I take it pretty damn serious. I want to do the right thing ... and if my conviction rate goes down because of it, so be it."