EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is an interview conducted by the Appalachian News-Express of Pikeville with attorney Robbie Wright, who defended James R. Huffman IV of Pikeville in Huffman’s murder trial in Whitesburg last month. In the interview, Wright, who is running for district judge in Pike County, criticizes the jury, local news media, the prosecutor and the judge for what he calls bias in the case. Wright had sought to have the case tried outside of Letcher County.
The defense counsel for a Pike County man recommended to serve a life plus 45 year sentence in Letcher County in the 2014 death of a Letcher man spoke out this week on his disappointment around the procedure and verdict in the case.
A Letcher jury recommended a life sentence for James Huffman IV, 38, of Pikeville, after the jury convicted him in the 2014 death of 24-year-old Michael Hogg. Following 15 days of trial, the jury found Hogg was killed following a confrontation between himself, Christopher Puckett and Stacy Phillips with Huffman and Patrick Smith, who is awaiting trial in the case, on New Year’s Day 2014.
“We were very disappointed that this could happen the way it happened,” Huffman’s defense counsel Robert F. Wright said this week. “The disappointment was with the process, not with just one person. The disappointment was that, the best criminal justice system in the world had failed that badly, in my opinion.”
Wright said that Huffman’s defense team immediately began recognizing problems of having the murder case against Huffman tried in Letcher County.
“There were obvious problems. Michael Hogg, to say that he was a well-known young man would be putting it lightly. A lot of people knew him, he had a lot of friends and that does say a lot about the young man he was. But, he was well-known, the family is lifelong residents of the county,” said Wright. “So that, from day one, just being who he was and the familiarity of the name created a problem.”
The high-profile case also received a lot of “pervasive” attention from both media and on social media, Wright said. When Wright’s team first brought up potentially changing the location of the case, legally known as a change of venue, there was backlash from the county, he said.
“There was actually an online petition started in Letcher County for folks, because there was talk of moving the case out of Letcher,” said Wright. “The petition was started and there was in excess of 500 electronic signatures. They had varying opinions about why the case should stay in Letcher County, ‘We want justice for Mike; We want Letcher County justice; It happened in Letcher County, it needs to stay in Letcher County,” we saw on there. So it was obvious there was a vast public opinion that this case could only be done correctly in Letcher County ”
The court held a change of venue hearing which Wright described as a “mini-trial.” Wright said he subpoenaed between 50 and 60 witnesses, many of whom had signed the petition.
“We thought after the hearing that there was no question the venue would be changed,” said Wright.
But, Special Letcher Circuit Judge Kent Hendrickson did not rule the venue should be changed.
“We knew, at that point, that it was going to be a real uphill battle,” Wright said. “One of the most, if not the most, fundamental rights that we have, as an American citizen, is the right to a fair, and I want to emphasize, a fair trial. Not a trial. A fair trial in front of a jury of our peers who are impartial and unbiased.”
Wright said, in his opinion, no juror could be considered a “peer of James Huffman.”
“The fact of the matter is, there was no one on the jury panel that looked at James Huffman as a peer,” Wright said. “He was vilified from day one. He was vilified, and continued to be vilified, through the media, through social media, through word of mouth.”
Wright said through pretrial publicity, pretrial bias and connections to the victim’s family in and around the courthouse and county meant “no one could look at this case objectively.”
“And, with all due respect to the media, especially the media there in Letcher County, … but their accounts were not accurate,” said Wright. “They were not accurate and, in fact, they were very far from being accurate.”
Once the trail began moving forward with the selection process, Wright said more problems began to manifest.
“Jury selection process is supposed to be that they are selected randomly through Frankfort, through the AOC (Administrative Office of the Court),” said Wright.
According to Wright, the previous time the case was set, between 60 and 70 percent of the jury pool was pulled from within the city limits of Whitesburg and Jenkins.
“ The population in Letcher County is 23 or 24,000. But, that percent of the jury, was pulled from about 3 percent of the population. That was pulled in Whitesburg, where this occurred, where Michael Hogg was known, so it was lining up to be the perfect storm,” said Wright.
The defense team filed motions objecting to the jury pool as not being an “accurate cross-section of the county.”
Wright said Letcher Commonwealth’s Attorney Edison Banks had previously argued that, despite the large amount of pretrial coverage, due to the vastness of Letcher County, there were people in other parts of the county that weren’t familiar with the incident and could provide a fair jury.
“The problem is none of those people were selected for jury. That’s the argument we made to the judge,” said Wright. “So, if they could pick people from the other side of the county and we have those come in, okay then maybe. But, that’s not what we got.”
Once the jury was seated and the trial began, Huffman’s defense team was dealt another blow after Pike County Sheriff ’s Office Detective Eddie Crum was not allowed to testify as an expert witness for Huffman.
“Basically, Detective Crum is probably one of the most decorated officers probably in the history of the Commonwealth. In my opinion, he is what a police officer should be. I have worked with him and I have worked against him, but he is the epitome of a good police officer,” said Wright.
Wright said his team had Crum review the investigation, to make observations on anything he believed might have been done correctly, or incorrectly.
“Detective Crum had some opinions on what may or may not have been done correctly, things that may have been polluted, some evidence and things, especially dealing with wounds and crime scene investigation,” said Wright. “The judge overruled it and wouldn’t allow him to testify as an expert, and that is something that will definitely be explored further.”
Wright said with the setbacks faced during the process, his team was not surprised by the verdict returned by the jury. Huffman was recommended to serve life in prison for Hogg’s murder. He was also recommended to serve a sentence of 20 years in prison for an attempted murder charge of Puckett and recommended to serve 10 years for each attempted murder charge of Phillips and Samantha Mullins.
“When the jury went to deliberate, we were thinking that exactly what happened was going to happen,” Wright said. “I was not surprised, the family was not surprised and, frankly, James Huffman was not surprised.”
Now that a verdict has been rendered, Wright said that he is awaiting the sentencing hearing, set for Jan. 18, before filing any appeal in the case.
“Barring some legal decision or ruling by the judge at sentencing, which there are some options that we don’t feel are likely to happen, not impossible by not likely,” Wright said. “If the sentencing recommendation stands, you can certainly be assured that we would be filing an appeal.”
Looking to that future possible appeal, and Wright’s intention to campaign and run for election to a Pike District Judge seat, Wright said that he will assist with Huffman until he no longer could.
“If, and when, the time comes that I have to pass the torch off to someone else, I will comply with all ethical and conflict of interest rules,” said Wright. ”
Huffman’s defense team during the trial included Pikeville-based defense attorneys Wright, Stephen Owens and Athanasia Lewis.