Drug Policy

The Ryan Frederick Trial: Day Three

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Ryan Frederick is the 28-year-old Chesapeake, Virginia man facing murder charges for killing a police officer during a drug raid (see this wiki for more on Frederick's case). My coverage of the first two days of his trial here.

I should note in these updates that I'm not actually in Chesapeake for the trial. My analysis of what's happening is contingent on reporting from the trial from the Virginian-Pilot newspaper and from local blogger Don Tabor, who is writing up reports from notes he's taking in the courtroom (and whom I've found to be pretty fair in his prior coverage of the case).

Yesterday began with the state calling Jarrond Shivers' widow to the stand. I found this odd, and a couple of criminal defense attorneys I spoke with (both not related to the case) confirmed my suspicions. I don't doubt Nicole Shivers' grief, but her tearful testimony added nothing substantive to what's at issue in this case: whether Ryan Frederick knew or should have known that the men breaking into his home were police officers. Shivers testified about her first date with her husband, about their relationship, and about the last time she saw him. This sort of testimony at least makes some sense during a sentencing hearing, but during the guilt phase of a criminal trial, it's inappropriate. It's only purpose is to spark juror emotions—to put in their head that with a"not guilty" verdict, they'd only be inflaming the widow's grief.

According to Tabor, Frederick attorney James Broccoletti didn't object to Shivers taking the stand, though it's possible that he objected to her inclusion as a witness at an earlier hearing. Broccoletti didn't respond to an email query (understandably, given that he's in the middle of a trial). It's possible that Broccoletti calculated that objecting to allowing Shivers to have her say would lose him sympathy with the jury, particularly if he thought he'd be overruled, anyway. I'd be interested in what readers with a criminal law background think of Nicole Shivers taking the stand.

The rest of the day was taken up by testimony from police officers involved in the raid. They reiterated the claim that they knocked and announced themselves repeatedly. Tabor found their testimony believable. I've heard from others at the trail who found them less credible.  But I'm not sure their credibility matters. Even taking the officers' testimony at face value, from the first knock until the battering ram took out the lower panel of his front door, Frederick had at most 25 seconds to wake up, gauge what was going on outside his home, and determine what to do about it. This, while his dogs were going nuts, and after he'd been burglarized days earlier (by the police department's own informant).

A few other items that came out yesterday that are worth noting:

•  On the day of the raid, Frederick bought two dead bolt locks for his door. A relatively minor point, but it helps establish his state of mind the night of the raid.

•  Broccoletti conceded that Frederick did at some point grow marijuana plants for personal use, but Frederick adamantly denies ever selling any. The police had no evidence at the time to suggest otherwise. (I don't know what the state has in store for the trial.  It wouldn't surprise me if they trotted out a jailhouse snitch claiming to have bought marijuana from Frederick). They attempted no controlled buys from Frederick. They surveilled his home and found nothing unusual. The affidavit mentions no complaints from neighbors (the neighbors I've spoken to speak highly of him). This raid wasn't conducted on a community menace. It was conducted on a guy who smoked and sometimes grew pot in his own home, for his own use.

• Indeed, the police officers who testified yesterday conceded that the only evidence they had on Frederick was the word of their informant, Steven Wright. Wright at the time was being held on felony charges related to credit card theft. According to the officers who testified, Wright had helped them on one prior case, and was paid $50. 

I should first add that this testimony conflicts with what Renaldo Turnbull (the other man who broke into Frederick's house with Wright) told me in June, and with what he told the Virginian-Pilot last February. Turnbull said both he and Wright had been working with the police for months, and that the police had encouraged them to illegally break into private homes to obtain probably cause for search warrants.

But let's assume the police officers are telling the truth. If so, that means they broke into Frederick's house after nightfall, using a battering ram, based solely on the word of a shady informant who at the time was facing his own felony charges. Not only that, but he didn't even have the marijuana plants he claimed to have taken. Those plants, if they even exist, have never been in police possession.

• From the Virginian-Pilot:

Roberts, Shivers' partner in the Frederick case, testified at length about the history of the investigation, the informant used and the surveillance conducted.

He described how they pulled up to the house that night in an unmarked van with the lights off. A second group was in an unmarked car, and a marked patrol unit rolled up past the house.

Dressed mostly in black, they "approached in a stealth manor," [sic] Roberts said. Shivers was to be the first through the door.

They started pounding on the door, shouting and then trying to break it down with a battering ram.

"I wanted, without a doubt, Mr. Frederick to know that we were the police outside," Detective Sgt. Scott Chambers said.

This doesn't make sense. If they wanted Frederick to know there were police outside "without a doubt," why approach the house in a "stealth-like manner"?  Why dress in black, and pull up silently in black, unmarked cars? If they wanted Frederick to know "without a doubt" that the police were outside his home, they should have used lights and sirens.  Perhaps a bullhorn.

This is the typical position the police take in these cases. They simultaneously maintain that the ninja tactics are necessary to take the suspect by surprise—and that the suspect should have known it was the police who were breaking into his home. The only way to resolve those two positions is to say that the police want to be stealth until they get to the door, at which point they want to be loud and boisterous.  That is, they want to take the suspect by surprise until just before entry, at which point they want to make it clear who they are. That puts an incredible amount of pressure on, in this case and others, a sleeping person to wake up and correctly ascertain what's going on.

(I'd encourage readers to experiment sometime.  Lay down in a bedroom and have a friend pound on your front door and yell.  See if you can decipher what they're saying, even while awake.)

• As I discussed yesterday, the other gaping hole in the prosecution's case is that they're maintaining that even though Steven Wright told them Frederick's home was broken into three nights before the raid, and even though they knew that Wright was in Frederick's home the same night it was burglarized, they didn't know until months later that it was actually Wright who conducted the burglary, and that he conducted it specifically (and illegally) to obtain probable cause for the search warrant.

Again from the Virginian-Pilot:

Roberts' testimony drew the most intense cross-examination after he named the informant – Steven Wright, whose full name is Steven Rene Wright. The police have refused until the trial to name him.

Also for the first time, Wright was identified as the person who alerted police to a break-in at Frederick's house days before the raid.

Wright failed, however, to tell police that it was he who broke into Frederick's garage and stole several marijuana plants, despite being asked "15 times," Roberts said. Police didn't learn that until about three months ago, he said.

Again, lots of problems, here. If they had to ask Wright "15 times," might that speak to his trustworthiness as an informant—particularly one on whose word would be the sole reason you conduct a home invasion raid?

Moreover, why would Wright possibly implicate himself by telling the police about the burglary in the first place? Did the police think Frederick invited him in?  Did they ask Wright how he was able to take several plants without Frederick noticing?

The state seems to be arguing that Wright came to the police that night and said something to the effect of, "Okay, I found several marijuana plants in the guy's garage tonight.  I took a few. Don't ask me how I got them. Also, I don't have the actual plants anymore. Must have lost them. But I'm sure they were marijuana. Trust me on that. Also, somebody broke into his garage tonight. But it wasn't me."

And they bought it?  In fact, they not only bought it, they bought it enough that they didn't feel they needed to do any further investigation before conducting a raid?

Seems to be that what Turnbull told me and the Virginia-Pilot is a far more plausible explanation. The cops had an arrangement with these guys. The cops looked the other way while their informants illegally broke into homes to get probable cause. That would explain why the cops knew on the night of the raid that Frederick's house had been burglarized three nights earlier (and were recorded saying as much).

Finally, we still don't know if Turnbull and Wright been charged for burglarizing Ryan Frederick's home. If not, why not?