The trial for the accused murderers of Waynesboro reserve police officer Kevin Quick was already one for the record books when it began May 4: Six defendants, 10 defense attorneys, three prosecutors, a jury panel of 134 and six weeks set aside for arguments in front of the Honorable Glen E. Conrad, chief U.S. District Judge for the Western District of Virginia.
But eight days later came a bombshell: The judge granted a mistrial for all defendants. The impetus was the discovery that one of the accused, now identified as Kweli Uhuru (who previously went by the name Travis Bell), had a list of the entire 134-person jury pool with him for a night in the Central Virginia Regional Jail. A transcript of a marathon meeting in the judge’s chambers not long after the discovery reveals some of what happened, and sheds light on the contentious debate that led to the decision to scrap the trial and start over.
Uhuru and siblings Mersadies Lachelle Shelton, Shantai Monique Shelton and Daniel Lamont Mathis face life in prison for murder, racketeering and other charges in the January 31, 2014, death of Quick, whom prosecutors say was abducted, robbed and killed while driving from his mother’s home in Afton to see his girlfriend and their young daughter near Charlottesville. Two other defendants, Halisi Uhuru and Anthony Stokes, stood accused of racketeering, narcotics distribution and obstruction of justice. Federal authorities said all six were members of the 99 Goon Syndikate, a Central Virginia subset of the Bloods gang.
Their trial was only days old when an FBI agent named Scott Cullins asked to meet with Judge Conrad. The transcript shows that early on May 7, all 13 attorneys joined them in Conrad’s chambers, where it was revealed a U.S. marshal had discovered the jury list—which included each potential juror’s name, address, spouse’s occupation, number of children and partial Social Security number—among Kweli Uhuru’s documents as he reentered the federal courthouse on West Main Street. The judge revealed marshals said it appeared he had it overnight while housed among the jail’s general population, and that he made a phone call to a relative during that time. One marshal said the defendants “are doing things that we can’t monitor” in jail. A search of Uhuru’s jail cell turned up nothing, said Cullins, but he could have copied the list and distributed it. The agent said law enforcement, including higher-ups at the FBI, were “appalled.”
The Blood Nation “has a history of not only retribution, but also preventative actions,” he said, bringing up the case of the father of a North Carolina prosecutor who was kidnapped on the orders of a jailed Bloods leader and rescued five days later. Nine people associated with the gang were indicted last April in the abduction of 63-year-old Frank Janssen of Wake Forest.
“It was actually a failure from an attempted murder,” Cullins said in chambers. “This person was in a closet tied up in plastic so any bodily fluid could be recovered.”
All 134 people on the jury list had to be notified, Cullins said. The FBI wanted to do it right away, he said, but would agree to wait until the trial’s end.
Defense attorneys in the room quickly raised the specter of a mistrial: If the already-impaneled jury members were told of the leak, it could prejudice them against the defendants.
“This trial seems snake-bit already,” said Christopher Kowalczuk, one of two attorneys for Mersadies Shelton.
Not all those representing the six agreed with him. Frederick Heblich, one of Mathis’ attorneys, pointed out that there’s nothing unusual about a defendant having access to a jury list, at least in court—a fact confirmed by the judge, but one that alarmed and seemed to baffle the FBI agent, who said he’d be “outraged” if he was a juror and learned his information had been shared.
Despite the agent’s concerns, Assistant U.S. Attorney Christopher Kavanaugh also opposed the move for a mistrial, calling the decision “rash.”
Kweli Uhuru’s lawyers were mostly silent, and the judge didn’t discuss details of how their client managed to obtain the list. But he did make clear who he thought was ultimately responsible for what he said was an “unacceptable” situation.
“I think it was a shortcoming on the part of the United States in several different respects, and I’m disappointed this happened,” Conrad said, “and I’m not going to forget that it happened.”
In the end, the judge said he thought that while the leak posed “no indication of any real and immediate threat,” he would act on the FBI’s concerns.
But a post-trial letter to jurors was out of the question, he said, because “it would have a serious impact on the confidence that the public at large would have in the jury system and service as a juror” if dozens of people learned the court knew they could have been at risk and kept it quiet for weeks. If the FBI insisted on notification, he said, “then we have to start over. It’s as simple as that.” He promised to pen the letters to the jury pool, and he indicated he’d grant mistrials to the defense attorneys who sought them.
Lawyers for all six defendants ultimately did so, though attorneys for Mathis and Kweli Uhuru waited to file motions until they saw how jurors reacted to news of the list leak in court on May 12. By 2:30pm that day, it was over—for the time being.
Attorneys on both sides seemed to agree during the wrangling in chambers that another trial would follow, possibly in a new location in Virginia. That makes sense, said Charlottesville defense attorney Dave Heilberg, who is not connected with the case, because this doesn’t appear to be a situation where double jeopardy would apply. There was no obvious misconduct by the prosecution, Heilberg said, and the defense wanted the mistrial. Conrad has not specified when a new trial would begin.
Another thing most—Heilberg, several of the trial attorneys, the FBI agent and the judge—seem to agree on: The circumstances are unprecedented.
“It’s highly unusual,” Heilberg said. “It’s a mess.”