CULPEPER Co., Va. – Childhood friends Eric Weakley, 20, and Michael Hash, 19, were arrested one day apart in 2000 for the murder of an elderly church organist four years earlier.
Both were charged as adults and faced life sentences if convicted. Each was offered a deal: plead guilty to a lesser charge with a more lenient sentence. Both were innocent.
After weeks of police interrogations and fears of being separated from his young daughter forever, Weakley finally told authorities he would admit to anything “so I can go the hell home.”
He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to six years and eight months in prison.
Hash turned the plea deal down flat. “I would never admit to something I did not do, period,” he told Capital News Service. “There was never a question in my mind of whether or not I was going to go to trial.”
He was convicted and sentenced to life in prison without parole.
Studies show such dramatic differences in sentences drive many defendants to do what Weakley did — plead guilty to crimes they did not commit.
A study this year by the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers found that the difference in sentences for going to trial had grown so wide that “even innocent defendants now plead guilty.”
In a legal system where more than nine of 10 convictions stem from guilty pleas, there are no reliable estimates for how often false pleas occur and few safeguards to prevent them, a Capital News Service and Injustice Watch investigation found. Prosecutors have tremendous power to manipulate charges and, thus, the penalties that defendants face.
Hash’s decision defied the typical criminal defendant’s course of action. And he paid for it: the prosecutor used his friend Weakley’s admissions to win Hash’s conviction and the maximum sentence at trial.
More than a decade would pass before evidence of their innocence — and of the lengths authorities went to secure their convictions — came to light.
Thelma Scroggins, a 74-year-old church organist and retired mail carrier, was shot four times in the head on the evening of July 13, 1996, in her Lignum, Virginia home.
The only DNA found at the scene was Scroggins’. Five fingerprints were recovered, but no match was ever made. The case went cold.
Three years later, Lee Hart ran for Culpeper County sheriff, campaigning on a promise to solve several open murder cases. Eight girls and women, including Scroggins, had been killed in and around Culpeper, a rural county of about 50,000 in northern Virginia, from March 1996 to May 1997. None of the killings had been solved.
In November 1999, Hart was elected, and investigators Scott Jenkins and James Mack were assigned to the Scroggins murder.
Mack declined through his lawyer to be interviewed for this article. Jenkins, who now is sheriff of Culpeper County, didn’t respond to repeated emails and phone calls. This account is based on court records, a pardon petition later submitted to the governor’s office for Weakley and interviews with others involved in the cases. Together, they provide an unusually detailed look behind an innocent man’s guilty plea and its devastating consequences.
Around the time that Jenkins and Mack received their assignment, Alesia Shelton, an estranged cousin of Hash, pleaded guilty to charges that she and her boyfriend shot a man six times in the head. She was in prison when Jenkins and Mack approached her about the Scroggins murder, according to the pardon petition.
Shelton’s crime bore some similarities to Scroggins’ murder, which could have been the reason the investigators questioned her, said Deirdre Enright, the director of investigation for the University of Virginia Innocence Project.
On March 27, 2000, according to the petition, the investigators recorded an interview with Shelton. She said she knew nothing about the murder. One investigator suggested they could lessen her sentence in exchange for information, and the recording was stopped.
When the recording resumed, Shelton said she had overheard Hash, Weakley and a third friend, Jason Kloby, discussing their involvement in the murder.
Hash, Weakley and Kloby had been childhood friends. In 1996, when Scroggins was killed, they were 15, 16, and 18. They spent their free time hanging out at the local skating rink, camping and occasionally fighting over girls, Weakley said in a recent interview with CNS.
In April of 2000, Jenkins and Mack approached Weakley about the murder. Weakley, by then 19, vehemently denied any involvement.
“I told them they’re crazy,” he said. “I mean, get the hell out of my way, I got to go to work. And then, that’s when it all started, you know? They would not leave me alone. Would not leave me alone.”
Jenkins and Mack began following Weakley, approaching him when he stopped for gas, parked his car or went in and out of work. They stalked the factory where he worked so often that his employers laid him off, he said. After he lost a second job that way, he agreed to answer the investigators’ questions.
“I said ‘All right, do what you need to do.’”
He told investigators he knew nothing about Scroggins’ death. Jenkins and Mack insisted he was lying and called him in for repeated interrogations, according to court records. Some lasted more than 12 hours.
Weakley said investigators used his daughter, a toddler at the time, to pressure him. They told him if he gave details about the murder, he could go home, he said. If he refused, they would limit his access to her.
“That’s when I just decided,” he said. “I said, ‘You know what? Fine. I’ll tell you whatever you want to know.’ And I told them everything they wanted to hear.”
He started by telling them he knew Hash and Kloby played a role in the murder. Later, Weakley said Hash and Kloby had each shot Scroggins once in the head and once in the chest with a nine-millimeter gun.
In reality, Scroggins was shot in the head four times with a .22 caliber weapon- most likely a rifle, according to the Commonwealth’s firearm examiner. In addition, crime-scene investigators had determined the murder was committed by a single person, according to court records and Weakley’s pardon petition.
The investigators became frustrated with his repeated incorrect answers, Weakley said.
“They came in and looked at me and said, ‘Well Mr. Weakley, we have a problem. You’re not being straightforward with us. We have so many statements and we can’t tell the difference between the truth and the lie. Can you?’”
Weakley said he told them, “No, I’m just here telling you what you want to hear, so I can go the hell home.”
The investigators began giving him details of the murder: “Jenkins and Mack showed me everything you can imagine about the crime. They showed me awful crime scene photos,” he would recall years later in a sworn affidavit. “Jenkins and Mack talked to me about a lot of the other details of the murder, such as the location where Ms. Scroggins’ body had been found, the position it was in, and how she had died.”
On May 16, he confessed he was present at Scroggins’ murder. He told the investigators he watched Hash and Kloby shoot Scroggins but declined to shoot her himself when offered the weapon, according to his pardon petition.
According to a 2018 study by the national Innocence Project of DNA exonerations in United States, 62 percent of wrongful convictions on murder charges involved false confessions. And 49 percent of false confessors were 21 or younger at the time of arrest.
Weakley was arrested immediately following his confession. Hash and Kloby were arrested and jailed in the following days.
Culpeper County Commonwealth Attorney Gary Close prosecuted the cases. He called Weakley to testify against his friends at both trials.
Kloby went first, in November 2000. His defense lawyers brought in several witnesses who testified that he was in Pennsylvania, visiting his father, at the time of Scroggins’ murder. A jury declared him not guilty in less than two hours.
After multiple attempts to contact him, Kloby declined to comment.
Before Hash’s trial, in February 2001, Jenkins and Mack visited Weakley in jail and coached him through his testimony, according to Weakley and court records.
“They would prep me before I went in and testified,” Weakley said in an interview with CNS. “They would sit me down and literally show me how the woman was sitting positioned in the doorway.”
“They would show me how she was laying on the ground. They would show me pictures of diagrams or where she was shot in the face. They would tell me how and what to say to go into the courtroom.”
Mack later admitted that he and Jenkins “may have” shown Weakley photos from the crime scene, according to court records.
The Commonwealth offered Hash a plea deal twice, first before his trial, and then before the jury deliberated, Hash told CNS. The offer was to amend the capital murder charge to second degree murder; if accepted, Hash would spend roughly six to 12 years in prison. Hash said he adamantly denied the offer both times.
“Even though I was a young teenager, I was raised to believe that the courts would sort things out and set the record straight,” Hash wrote in a recent text message. “I never would have imagined back then that an innocent person would have been found guilty of something they did not do. Unfortunately in reality it does happen much more than our society realizes.”
On February 9, 2001, after six and a half hours of deliberation, the jury found Hash guilty of capital murder and he was sentenced to life without parole. “You’ve convicted an innocent person,” Hash told the judge.
Weakley’s case came last. Commonwealth Attorney Gary Close reduced the charges against him to second-degree murder and Weakley pleaded guilty in Culpeper County Circuit Court on June 13, 2001.
Close, in an interview with CNS, said he made the plea deal because he feared losing at trial, that an argument “could be made to the jury, that may lead them to find him not guilty. So at that point, that’s when I decided a plea agreement might be the best way to go.”
Weakley’s defense attorney, Charles Bowman, did not respond to repeated calls regarding the case.
Weakley was sentenced to 20 years for second-degree murder -— but the judge only required him to serve six years and eight months in prison, suspending the rest.
An analysis of available Virginia court data found that 42 percent of guilty pleas in capital murder cases over the past five years involved a reduction in charges that essentially cut the defendant’s sentence in half.
“If an attorney comes to a defendant and says we can offer you something less, and something certain, it’s very tempting for a defendant to accept that offer, rather than risk decades or a life sentence, in a serious case,” Brandon Garrett, a law professor at Duke University, said in an interview.
“It’s hard for a lawyer to advise a client to roll the dice. So, there’s the pressure of uncertainty, and there’s also the pressure of certainty.”
In Virginia, those who pleaded guilty to lesser charges received 26 years on average. Those convicted of capital murder at trial averaged 54 years. Even those convicted of a lesser charge at trial received much stiffer sentences — 46 years on average.
CNS analyzed five years of data from Virginiacourtdata.org, which includes case information for all jurisdictions except Fairfax County and Alexandria.
Many legal scholars believe plea bargaining puts too much power in the hands of prosecutors.
There are systems of checks and balances in other areas of the judicial system, but the plea bargaining process lacks such accountability, said Brian Johnson, professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Maryland.
Sentencing reforms initially came about in the 1970s when crime was on the rise. The federal government decided to replace the country’s philosophy of rehabilitation with a more disciplinary attitude, according to Johnson.
Congress introduced measures that constrained the power of the judge, such as mandatory minimums, three-strikes laws, habitual offender laws and sentencing guidelines in the federal courts.
“If you think about discretion in the justice system, it’s kind of like air in a balloon,” Johnson said. “If you squeeze one part of the balloon, what happens? The other part gets bigger.” These policy changes squeezed “the discretionary power of the judge to determine sentences, and all that discretion went to the prosecutor.”
In many cases, plea bargaining is a positive alternative to trial and defendants benefit from the lesser sentence. But it depends on how the prosecutor, relying on the police version of events, uses the tool.
“There’s some prosecutors that really do offer deals that are truly lenient, and that everyone would agree, are fair,” Garrett said. “I don’t think anyone suggests that it’s bad for people to have discretion in the criminal justice system.”
“The concern is when agreements are entered in a highly coercive environment where the options are severe all around.”
Weakley was released from prison in 2006. A few years later, two lawyers from the University of Virginia Innocence Project knocked on his door. The UVA Innocence Project investigates and works to correct wrongful convictions throughout Virginia.
One of them was Enright. She said they explained they wanted his help in exonerating Hash. They sought an affidavit from Weakley saying he falsely confessed to the murder, hoping to use it to get his conviction tossed out.
“I talked to my mother and my father,” Weakley told CNS. “I talked to my sister and my brother. But the main person I wanted to talk to was Emily” — his now 20-year-old daughter. “She said, ‘Daddy, do what you need to do to make it right.’”
Weakley signed a formal statement recanting his confession and testimony against Kloby and Hash on March 21, 2011. The affidavit was reviewed in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia, where Hash’s new lawyers had filed a writ of habeas corpus for his release.
“All of the information I gave at trial about the crime scene was given to me during interviews with police and prosecutors,” Weakley’s sworn affidavit stated.
Hash was represented in the habeas case by Richmond attorney Matthew Bosher, who handled the case pro bono, and Shawn Armbrust, executive director of the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project.
Bosher and Armbrust also challenged testimony by two other prosecution witnesses who said Hash admitted committing the murder — his cousin, Shelton, and Hash’s cellmate while awaiting trial.
Shelton testified in exchange for leniency in connection to her criminal charges, they argued, and the cellmate was a “jailhouse snitch” who expected a reduced sentence in return, according to court documents. Efforts to reach Shelton for comment were unsuccessful.
Hash’s prosecution “was the sort of case where you read the trial transcripts, you read the trial exhibits, and it just doesn’t add up,” Bosher said. “There was zero physical evidence connecting Mike to the crime.”
Close resigned as the Culpeper County Commonwealth Attorney the day before Hash returned to court.
“It was the most difficult decision I have ever made,” Close said in a recent interview. “I just thought it was not right for me to bring the office into that maelstrom that was gathering.”
The habeas petition argued that Hash had been imprisoned in violation of his right to due process, prosecutorial misconduct and constitutionally ineffective assistance of counsel.
Senior U.S. District Judge James C. Turk, citing “outrageous” police and prosecutorial misconduct, voided Hash’s conviction on August 20, 2012.
In a 65-page opinion, Turk wrote, “the Court is disturbed by the miscarriage of justice that occurred in this case and finds that Hash’s trial is an example of an ‘extreme malfunction’ in the state criminal justice system.”
Weakley said the judge’s decision took a weight off his shoulders. “I’m glad that man’s home,” he told CNS. “I feel great about it. I feel like I amended my wrong that I did to somebody.”
Weakley’s guilty plea, however, has not been voided. He has struggled to find work, he said, and live an ordinary life with a second-degree murder conviction tainting his record.
He cannot file a habeas petition like Hash, because those are for people still serving their sentences. Weakley could file a “writ of actual innocence,” asking the court to vacate his conviction because of overwhelming evidence he didn’t commit the crime. But it’s difficult to win cases that don’t involve exculpatory DNA evidence, Enright said.
“And it’s even rarer if the defendant pleaded guilty, making it “much harder, if not impossible, for Weakley at this point,” she said. “So all his eggs are in the pardon basket.”
The UVA Innocence Project filed a pardon petition with Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, in 2018. A formal pardon from the governor would clear Weakley’s name and publicly forgive him for the crime. A representative from the governor’s office would not provide the status of the request.
Weakley remains optimistic and says, if pardoned, he would dedicate himself to criminal court reform.
“I will try to change the justice system in any way I can,” he said, “before it happens to somebody else.”
By Mackenzie Roche, Evan Silvera and Roxanne Ready