Murder charges against two Fayette defendants dismissed

·9 min read

Jan. 8—Charges against two of three men who were arrested in Fayette County for the 2014 murder of a 41-year-old Oak Hill man have been dropped, after a federal court judge found that prosecutors had not provided, in a timely manner, evidence that seemed to clear one of the defendants of the murder.

Quantel Saunders and Corte Lawson are two of four people who faced charges in the Nov. 2, 2014, death of Franklin Borders Jr. of Oak Hill. Following a 14-month investigation, both were charged in January 2016 with murder, robbery and conspiracy to commit a felony in Borders' slaying.

On Nov. 9, a federal court judge ordered that Saunders could not be prosecuted for Borders' death because, based on errors made at his September 2019 trial in Fayette County Circuit Court, the state would be forcing him to place himself in "double jeopardy," which is a violation of his Constitutional rights.

"Double jeopardy" is when a defendant is charged twice for the same offense.

On Dec. 16, Fayette Circuit Court Judge Thomas Ewing ordered that the charges against Lawson be dismissed with prejudice, meaning that he may not be charged again in Borders' murder. Ewing cited the federal ruling in Saunders' case when issuing his decision.

Lawson's attorney, Mark Plants, asked for the dismissal. Special prosecuting attorney Larry Harrah did not object to the dismissal, citing the federal judge's decision in Saunders' case.

"In the interest of justice, and based on the facts and law, the state did not oppose the motion to dismiss," Ewing wrote.

The judge also noted that Lawson's trial had been continued for two "unexcused terms."

Borders was shot in the Harlem Heights home he shared with Sabrina Gray on Nov. 2, 2014. He was in his living room when he was shot in the abdomen and later died at Plateau Medical Center.

Harrah, who was prosecuting attorney when Saunders was arrested, said in 2016 that authorities believed the murder was drug-related. Harrah told The Register-Herald in 2016 that the Lawsons and Saunders, all of Beckley, were members of a Raleigh County gang involved in criminal activity, including trafficking drugs.

On the night of the murder, Gray telephoned 911 to report a shooting, saying around 11 p.m. that two unknown men forced their way into her Broadway Avenue home, which she shared with the victim. However, Harrah said, suspicion arose almost immediately in the case — when police arrived at the two-story, white house, there was no sign of forced entry or a struggle.

Additionally, he said, a number of deleted text messages were found on Gray's telephone concerning her involvement in the illicit drug trade. When police confronted her, court documents show, Gray stopped cooperating with the investigation.

Police charged her initially for setting up the alleged robbery but later dropped charges against her.

Harrah said the witness who came forward in 2016 contacted Oak Hill Police "a while ago." He said the information she told authorities corroborated information law enforcement already knew.

"As to her motivation, I don't know," he said.

Harrah, who resigned in December 2019, said in 2016 that a witness had come forward to tell law enforcement she saw two men running down Broadway Avenue and entering a silver Dodge Neon, a car "known to be driven" by Corte Lawson.

The men were "later identified" as Joseph Lawson and Saunders, Harrah said.

According to federal court documents, the witness, Carlon Gunn, told police she had heard gunshots from Gray's house and had seen two Black men running from the house. Court documents stated that Gunn told police she recognized Corte and Saunders as the two men running from Gray's house. She reported they got into a vehicle and left the house. Gunn reportedly told police she also recognized the getaway vehicle.

Joseph Lawson was implicated in Borders' murder when a receipt from Hooter's in Beckley was found near Borders' house. The receipt had Joseph's name on it.

Initially, according to the criminal statement, Joseph told police he was present when Borders was murdered. He reportedly told police that he had bought marijuana from Borders. Later, he recanted his statement and told police that he had never personally contacted Borders.

He said he left the murder scene because his girlfriend had been texting him.

When police interviewed Saunders and Corte, both men allegedly said they were with Joseph on the evening of Nov. 2 so that Corte could allegedly buy pills from Jospeh.

Saunders allegedly told police he had ridden from Beckley to Oak Hill with Joseph in order to sell the pills to Corte. The three men were all charged with murder.

Jospeh Lawson, Corte's cousin, pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter in Borders' slaying.

Saunders, who had been arrested in Beckley in 2015 for six counts of wanton endangerment and one count of unlawful possession of a firearm by a convicted felon, after allegedly firing shots at the Corner Shop on South Kanawha Street, was at Southern Regional Jail when he was charged.

U.S. Marshals and Beckley Police Department arrested Corte Lawson at Baymont Inn on Harper Road.

Saunders' trial for Borders' murder in Fayette Circuit Court started on Sept. 4, 2019, with an empaneled jury.

During opening arguments, Harrah told jurors Borders was "in the wrong place at the wrong time."

"The evidence will show they busted in the house and shot Frankie Borders as soon as they entered the house," Harrah said, according to a report by WVNS.

Harrah told jurors that Lawson and Gray would be testifying against Saunders.

"When you hear her tell her story and when you hear Joe Lawson ... who puts himself there and says, 'I don't know where they went' ... he came back in a hurry and said, 'Boy, we got to get out of here fast' ... it is common sense, folks," Harrah told the jury.

Houck had argued that both Gray and Lawson changed their statements to police several times and that Joseph Lawson got his friend Saunders and his cousin Corte Lawson to lie to police, giving Joseph an alibi.

"Little did they know he would use that and put them here today," said Houck.

According to federal court documents, Houck told the court on Sept. 9, 2019, that the state already had evidence which could help exonerate Saunders and had not provided it to the defense.

Harrah told the court that the state had not purposefully withheld exculpatory evidence from Saunders. He then provided the requested evidence to the defense. Although Saunders' attorney asked the judge to dismiss the case, the judge denied the request and instead granted a continuance so that Houck had a few days to examine the evidence.

The trial reconvened on Sept. 17, 2019. Houck asked for a continuance to better investigate the evidence, which the prosecutor opposed. The prosecutor asked the judge to instead declare a mistrial, and the judge complied.

The judge ruled that the jurors could have forgotten the facts of the case, due to the continuance. Because the judge declared a mistrial instead of dismissing the charge, Saunders could face another trial for the same charge, even though jurors had already heard the charges against him.

Saunders' attorney argued that a new trial on the same charges would place him in double jeopardy, which is a violation of the U.S. Constitution. Saunders appealed the decision by Fayette Circuit Court.

The West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals on Jan. 6, 2020, refused to hear an appeal from Saunders, prompting Saunders to seek relief in federal court in February. His attorneys, federal public defenders Jonathan Byrne and Wesley Page, brought the suit on his behalf.

U.S. District Court for the Southern District of West Virginia Judge Irene Berger heard Saunders' case in federal court.

Saunders reported in federal court documents that the State of West Virginia had knowingly provided false information to grand jurors in order to indict him for Borders' murder. Saunders said that a large portion of Gunn's statement could be proven false.

Saunders also reported that police had violated the West Virginia Eyewitness Protection Act by failing to follow proper procedure when asking Gray to identify Saunders.

"Prior to Jan. 9, 2017, Sabrina Gray had not identified any of the codefendants in this case by name or following participation in a live or photo lineup," Saunders' attorney wrote. "When asked about the identity of the subjects that entered her home on Nov. 2, 2014, Gray stated, 'I Googled their mug shots. I have never seen them before in my life. I don't know any of these guys.'

"The officer presented one photo of each defendant stating, 'These are the three we arrested.'

"Gray asked, 'Who is who?'

"(A state trooper with the Oak Hill detachment) then proceeds to tell Gray the name of (Saunders, Corte and Joseph)."

Saunders argued that testimony before the grand jury that Gray had identified Saunders was misleading.

Berger ruled that Saunders could not stand trial for Borders' murder because it would place him in double jeopardy, forcing him to endanger himself twice for the same charges.

"The file turned over to the petitioner in the middle of his criminal trial was (exculpatory material) and thus should have been provided to the petitioner prior to trial and prior to the jury being empaneled," wrote Berger. "The files contained information of a witness stating that someone other than the petitioner (Saunders) had committed the crime with which he (Saunders) was charged."

Berger noted that both Fayette Circuit Court and the prosecuting attorney had stated that the "late disclosure" was not willful and did not intentionally violate a 1963 SCOTUS ruling in the case of Brady v. Maryland, which declares that prosecutors must give defendants any evidence that could exonerate them from a criminal charge.

"These explanations are both immaterial and unconvincing," Berger wrote. "First, the relevant material was not turned over until the jury had been empaneled, the trial was underway, and the state had presented a significant portion of its case.

"If this is merely 'late disclosure,' the Court strains to find how much later the disclosure could have been.

"Given that jeopardy attaches at the time the jury is empaneled, it is difficult to believe that exculpatory disclosures after that point are somehow merely 'late.'"

She added that regardless of whether the Brady violation was unintentional did not matter, under the Brady ruling.

Berger also ruled that the state and trial court could not properly justify the necessity of a mistrial in Saunders' case.

"The court rules that further prosecution of the petitioner (Saunders) on the underlying criminal charges cease, as further prosecution would violate (Saunders') double jeopardy rights," the judge ruled.