STANARDSVILLE -- The specter of a former Greene County Sheriff’s Office employee’s felonious conduct loomed large over Taybronne Altereik White’s final motions hearing Friday ahead of a two-week jury trial scheduled to begin Sept. 24.
Attorneys for White, 28, charged with first-degree murder in the May 2011 shooting deaths of three people, argued Friday that ousted evidence custodian James Shifflett ruined their client’s constitutional right to a fair trial when he stole money tied to White’s case.
The money Shifflett pilfered from two sealed evidence bags could not be tested for forensic evidence that might help White defend himself against the 11 felony charges he faces in Greene County Circuit Court, defense attorney Michael Hemenway said.
“This is really as bad as it gets ... the integrity of the justice system has to stay intact,” Hemenway said. “At some point, the court has to say, ‘enough.’”
Hemenway and co-counsel Edward Ungvarsky asked Judge Daniel Bouton to dismiss White’s charges or consider barring prosecutors from bringing any piece of evidence Shifflett touched before a jury.
Findings from an internal audit conducted in March 2012 by senior Sheriff’s Office workers linked Shifflett to more than $19,000 missing from 33 cases, nearly all of which were no longer active, according to court testimony.
Shifflett pleaded guilty to felony embezzlement in September 2012 and received a 10-year prison sentence, all of which was suspended.
White’s attorneys also asked Bouton to suppress testimony from a woman who said she had seen White walking outside just before the bodies of Charlottesville residents Brian Robert Daniels, 26, Dustin Tyler Knighton, 25, and Lisa Hwang, 26, were found lying along Octonia Road.
Ungvarsky challenged the lineup process police used and questioned the woman’s motivation for coming forward 10 months after the homicides. She testified Friday that she reached out to prosecutor Ronald Morris with the information when she learned she might be facing jail time.
The lead investigator working the case, Sgt. Rodney Snead, testified earlier this week that he had violated office policy by administering the lineup himself instead of bringing in an officer who had not worked on the case. Morris said the agency has a small staff and finding someone with no ties to a major investigation can be a challenge.
Snead and the woman gave varied accounts of how the interview unfolded, neither of which could be corroborated via video due to a malfunction with the agency’s equipment, officers said in court.
Details about Shifflett’s crime and the investigation into the missing funds surfaced Friday during several hours of testimony from Shifflett, his former colleagues, the Virginia State Police agent who investigated Shifflett’s case and Sheriff Steve Smith.
Bouton stopped Hemenway several times to ask for an estimate of how long evidence related to Shifflett would take, prompting an outburst from the otherwise soft-spoken defendant.
“Why does he got to tell you how much time he needs?” White asked Bouton, raising his voice. “That’s not right man, you’re not being fair.”
Outside the courthouse, White’s father said his son was close friends with the victims.
“My son spoke out ... because he knows what’s happening is not right and he deserves a fair trial,” Alonzo Cutchin said. “I believe he’s innocent. He’s fighting for his life.”
Cutchin voiced concerns about the missing evidence.
“This stuff is not legal, it’s not fair, it’s not just — no kind of way,” he said. “My son’s life is on the line.”
White faces three first-degree murder charges; four counts of using a firearm during the commission of a crime; armed burglary of a residence; robbery of a residence; malicious wounding; and being a nonviolent felon in possession of a gun.
Bouton said he needed more time to consider Friday's motions. He did not say when he would announce his decisions.