2018-01-24 / Opinions

Prosecutor wants attorney’s apology

To the Editor:

On behalf of the citizens of Letcher County, and in particular on behalf of the family of Michael Hogg, as well as on behalf of Christopher Puckett, Stacy Phillips, Samantha Mullins and their families, I want to thank the men and women who served on the Letcher Circuit Court jury in the matter of the Commonwealth of Kentucky v. James R. Huffman IV. These Jurors made many personal sacrifices during this long threeweek trial including being away from their families and friends in the days just before Christmas.

The men and women who served on the jury were a diverse group, with different life experiences and residing and coming from all over Letcher County. These fine citizens did this not by choice, but from their strong sense of civic duty to their fellow citizen to seek the truth and to render justice in the murder of Michael Hogg and attempted murders of Christopher Puckett, Stacey Phillips and Samantha Mullins.

Likewise, I wish to thank the law enforcement officers who spent hours of their own time meeting with me over the past four years since the murder of Michael Hogg, reviewing the evidence they had collected, fully preparing for trial on at least four occasions, all working together with the common goal of getting to the truth of the matter in order to understand why a human being could commit such a brutal murder as the defendant now stands convicted. In particular, I would like to thank Lt. Claude Little, Sgt. Joel Abner and Detective Randy Combs, all of the Kentucky State Police.

These three officers exemplify what a good police officer is, that being one who perseveres in seeking the truth at all times in the performance of their solemn oaths to serve and protect their fellow citizens. I would also like to promise these three fine officers that I won’t be calling or texting them at 2 a.m. in the morning with my questions or thoughts concerning this matter or any similar matter for many years to come. However, should the need to do so arise, I know they stand ready, willing and more than able to assist in getting to the truth as we did in the investigation of the murder of Michael Hogg.

I also want to thank my staff. While they may be small in number, they are truly awesome. I could not have achieved the outcome of this trial without their faithful and dedicated assistance throughout the entire investigation and court proceedings. Thank you again, Gene, Kristi, Felicia and Linda for always going beyond merely “doing your job”.

I also want to thank those of you who told me you were praying for me and asking God to provide me with wisdom and guidance throughout this long four-year ordeal. I will always be grateful for your prayers and I will continue to ask God for strength, wisdom and guidance.

This trial stands for the principle that our legal system has withstood the test of time and remains the very best legal system in the world. This trial stands for the principle that our legal system works, and that despite the many delays caused by the unforeseen and uncontrollable turn of events over the past four years. After losing our sitting judge mere weeks before the first scheduled trial date after he was elected to the Kentucky Supreme Court, we had yet another postponement when the defendant required an emergency examination, and a third postponement due to the sudden unexpected death of one of the witnesses the day before the scheduled trial this past April.

Although former United Kingdom Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone said many years ago that “Justice delayed is Justice denied,” the hard work of Special Letcher Circuit Court Judge Kent Hendrickson of Harlan County, as well as that of the other court personnel, law enforcement officers, and attorneys, both for the defense and prosecution, made sure that these delays in the trial of James R. Huffman IV did not deny justice. Together all made sure the best evidence that could be obtained or was allowed to be presented was dutifully collected, preserved, analyzed, and presented to the jury in the quest to find the truth concerning the murder of Michael Hogg.

The Commonwealth presented both the so-called “good” with the “bad” evidence in this matter and the defense team was given access to each and every piece of evidence, witness statement or report that was generated in this case by the thorough and professional investigation conducted by the Kentucky State Police. In the end, the jury took all of the testimony, evidence and many exhibits introduced during the trial into the jury room during their thoughtful deliberation. The result of that hard work by so many speaks for itself: Justice was served.

An impartial jury of his peers tried the defendant. Indeed, two days of the three-week trial were spent just in the selection of the jury, with any prospective jurors having actual or even “implied bias” being excused for cause and released from service by the court in accordance with the law. Contrary to the reports by some woefully inexperienced (at least in matters of court proceedings) out-of-town media who said there were “difficulties” in selecting the prospective jurors, there were no such “difficulties” in selecting an unbiased jury panel in this matter.

Thus, this was indeed a fair trial, one in which the defendant was tried before an unbiased and impartial jury of his peers and one where the defendant was aggressively represented by a team of three highly experienced criminal defense attorneys and their full support staff. I am confident that every ruling by the court during this trial was fully supported by the evidence and law, and while there is no such thing as a “perfect” trial, this was a “fair” trial, and the Appellate Court will fully affirm the verdict in my opinion.

While no attorney likes to lose a jury trial, I have never during my many years as a prosecutor heard of a losing attorney blaming his or her loss of a trial upon the legal system, jurors and the court itself as was done by Robert Wright, the lead counsel of the defense team, in a recent interview in his hometown newspaper in Pikeville, the Appalachian News-Express. Interestingly, the Pikeville newspaper gave little to no coverage of the trial nor did the newspaper contact any members of the prosecution for a “fair and balanced” account of the trial proceedings.

Likewise, I have never heard of a losing attorney in a criminal case blaming the victims for their own murder and attempted murders as Mr. Wright did at the sentencing hearing for his client on January 19.

I do not know whether Mr. Wright’s blaming of the victims or his interview with the Pikeville newspaper — wherein he blamed everyone involved in the case for the conviction of his client except, of course, the defendant himself — was done in a moment of frustration or anger by Mr. Wright over his loss of the case. Nor do I know whether Mr. Wright’s attack and shifting of the blame onto the victims, the citizens of Letcher County, jurors, the court and the legal system was due in any way to the fact that Mr. Wright has been an active candidate for the high office of Pike County District Judge and now fears that the life sentence without the possibility of probation recommended by the jury and imposed by the court upon his client will be detrimental to such candidacy.

While I certainly hope that none of these factors played any role in Mr. Wright’s recent interview in his hometown newspaper in Pikeville or in Mr. Wright’s recent attack upon the victims themselves in open court last week, I believe that both attacks and in particular the blaming of the victims and of the jurors for the conviction of his client for the murder of Michael Hogg and for the attempted murders of Christopher Puckett, Stacey Phillips and Amanda Mullins by Mr. Wright are simply wrong.

I therefore call upon Mr. Wright to apologize for what I believe are clearly unwarranted and inappropriate attacks and shifting of the blame by Mr. Wright for the acts of murder and attempted murder of his client James R. Huffman IV onto the citizens of Letcher County and in particular onto the victims and their families of his client’s crimes, the court, and onto the hard-working jurors who heard the case and found Mr. Wright’s client guilty of these violent and horrific crimes against humanity. These attacks and shifting of blame by Mr. Wright cannot and indeed should not be tolerated in my opinion.

I pledge to the family of Michael Hogg, to Christopher Puckett, Stacey Phillips and Samantha Mullins and to the citizens of Letcher County, that I will vehemently oppose any type of early release or parole for the defendant by the Parole Board and with your continued prayers and support the defendant, James R. Huffman IV, will remain locked behind bars for the remainder of his natural life, never again to be given the opportunity to prey upon or to harm the law abiding citizens of society.

Thank you and God bless the United States of America, this Commonwealth, our County and all of their great people. S/ HON. EDISON G. BANKS II Letcher Commonwealth’s Attorney

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