The McCoy case: From death row to freedom

DOVER — On Thursday afternoon, Isaiah W. McCoy, 29, was found not guilty in the shooting death of James J. Munford during a reported drug deal turned robbery in a Rodney Village area bowling alley on May 4, 2010.

Mr. McCoy had served over 6 1/2 years in prison and was on death row after his arrest, which included a vacated Superior Court capital murder conviction in 2012 due to the actions of a prosecutor and judge at trial.

Mr. Munford, 30 at the time of his death, was shot once in the upper torso and later died from his wounds at Bayhealth-Kent General Hospital in Dover.

Facing first-degree murder, first-degree robbery, possession of a deadly weapon during the commission of a felony and second-degree conspiracy charges as his second trial began last week, Mr. McCoy turned down a plea deal to manslaughter and a weapon offense.

After a bench trial lasting six days, Judge Robert B. Young determined a not guilty verdict on all charges against Mr. McCoy. He was subsequently released from Howard R. Young Correctional Center in Wilmington.

At trial, Mr. McCoy’s nephew and Mr. Munford’s girlfriend were called by the prosecution to testify.

Attorneys Michael Wiseman and Herb Mondros represented Mr. McCoy, with Deputy Attorneys General Greg Babowal and Stephen Smith prosecuting for the state.

The decision explained

Following is the text version of the decision that Judge Young read in court in announcing his decision:

Isaiah McCoy

“This verdict, of course, follows the extensive presentation of testimony and exhibits at trial, as well as a review of the stipulated testimony and exhibits. It also follows the excellent reviews and closings by counsel, which synthesized many parts, and distilled them to cogent analysis, all very helpful to the Court.

“In this case, the State has alleged that Defendant McCoy, on May 4, 2010, went to the Rodney Village Bowling Alley, with [his nephew], ostensibly to purchase drugs from James Munford, who had come there with [his girlfriend] to sell to them, all on arrangements made through [his girlfriend].

“At that scene, McCoy is said to have entered the rear passenger seat of the Munford SUV, pulled out a gun, permitted [the girlfriend] to leave, then – from his seat – shot Munford, who ultimately died.

“A great deal of the case is not disputed: Mr. Munford, very tragically and unnecessarily was killed. His death came about in the course of a drug transaction at which [his girlfriend] and [McCoy’s nephew] were present. All of the peripheral considerations are essentially stipulated: date, time and location; cause of death; type of weapon utilized; vehicle used in the transaction and as a “getaway;” relationships among all individuals even remotely related to the event; and so forth.

“Hence, the only significant question involved was whether the State could prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Defendant McCoy was the person who shot Mr. Munford.

Little direct evidence

Robert B. Young

“While 20-some witnesses provided testimony – about half live and half by edited transcript of prior testimony – plus a video interview of Mr. McCoy and a surveillance video of the Bowling Alley parking lot filming (from a distance) the entire event, very little provided direct evidence: the video showed two men approaching the vehicle; one walk around the back to the driver’s door; someone emerge from the driver’s door, confront the one who had walked around, depart and then slump.

“All of that activity failed to indicate any decipherable individual on the screen.

“The direct testimony addressing the involvement of Defendant McCoy came exclusively from [the nephew and girlfriend], the persons alleged to have been accomplices of Defendant McCoy.

“The State has delineated a series of coincidences, which no evidence from Defendant has explained away. Of course, as the State would readily agree, Defendant has no obligation to explain anything, or even to offer the first piece of evidence.

“It is the burden of the State to prove each element of each offense beyond a reasonable doubt. That is the only extent obligation. Concordantly, it should be noted that the demonstration of Defendant’s innocence has nothing to do with the case.

“Further, a determination that Defendant probably killed Mr. Munford, or that by a preponderance of the evidence he did kill Mr. Munford, likewise is not an aspect of this case in any regard.

“The State’s burden, specifically, is to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Defendant killed Mr. Munford – or was part of a conspiracy to do so.

Evaluating accomplices

“In a situation, such as we have here, where the only testimony involving the Defendant in the crime is provided by accomplices, by law great care must be taken.

“In this case, each of the alleged accomplices gave at least four different versions: two to the police, one at the former trial, a possible jailhouse admission, and one here in this trial.

“The various versions of each witness differed in variously significant detail from each other; and each one of the four or five differed in significant detail from each of the four given by the other accomplice. In at least one version of each witness – albeit predominantly the first version each time – each witness proclaimed the absence of Defendant from the incident altogether.

On the conviction of each accomplice, each one received a reduced penalty from what could otherwise have been meted out on the basis that he or she would provide testimony to assist in the conviction of Defendant McCoy.

“In many states, the testimony of an accomplice cannot be the basis of a conviction unless it is corroborated by an independent source. That is not the requirement in Delaware. Here, accomplice testimony, without such corroboration, is to be “examined carefully,” when it is the sole basis of the guilt of the defendant.

“The fact finder must be “satisfied beyond a reasonable doubt that the accomplice testimony is true.” Absent independent corroboration, where the fact finder does not have such a level of confidence, a finding of “not guilty” must be made.

“It would be a formidable challenge to obtain such a level of credibility, trying to glean the truth exclusively from the diverse versions presented by the accomplice testimony. Accordingly, corroboration of that testimony is essential.

Looking for corroboration

“The State would argue that there does exist the necessary corroboration. The evidence is undisputed that the victim was killed by a .38 caliber bullet.

“Also, per the testimony of [a witness for the State], the Defendant had in his possession the witness’ revolver, which would shoot a .38 caliber pellet, on the day of the killing. There is no evidence, however, that the witness’ pistol fired the fatal shot, or – absent the accomplice testimony – that Defendant fired any weapon: no gunshot residue on

“Defendant, no finger prints on any revolver (in fact, finger prints of forensic value were found on the investigated revolver, but they were not identified as a match to Defendant), no DNA findings – nothing but the final testimony of the accomplices; no forensic findings of Defendant in the SUV in which Defendant is accused of firing the gun.

“Noted is that, by at least one version by accomplice [the nephew] a .38 shot was fired from the back seat of the SUV into Mr. Munford, while he was still in the passenger seat. That description is difficult to accept, due to the absence of any supporting forensic evidence.

“Further, the State has shown that material was burned behind the building in which Defendant resided. That was done, said accomplice [nephew], by both [nephew] and Defendant to destroy every vestige of clothing which might link either to the event. The fact of some burning was corroborated by Defendant’s grandmother.

“She did not, though, witness the burning. Moreover, the closest thing to any identifying clothing of Defendant – a Cincinnati baseball cap, claimed by White to have been worn during the event by Defendant – was, remarkably, not burned, but sat very overtly on the sofa in the area in which Defendant resided.

“Were Defendant involved in the shooting and the careful material destruction aftermath, the overlooking of that cap would seem unlikely.

Not seeming anxious

“Additionally, as described in testimony submitted by both parties from the former trial, Defendant’s demeanor – unlike, for instance, White’s – in the time period following the event, while the looming presence of the police was around, was very “normal,” unreflective of any anxiety.

“Arguably, that could be the cool posture of a hardened criminal, or it could suggest non-involvement. When the police actually confronted the defendant offered utterly no resistance or effort to escape. Flight, in the law, can be looked at as an indication of guilt. No such legal inference exists in the absence of flight. On the other hand, when searching for corroboration, none will be found from Defendant’s post-event condition.

“Following some investigation, Defendant was interviewed by the police.

“Each counsel argued the “meaning” of that interview. Was it the incredulous questioning of an innocent person, or was it the skilled counter-investigation of a person experienced in police matter, bobbing and weaving to avoid contributing anything of assistance. The resolution of that is unnecessary, because the salient point is that it provided no evidence of guilt or corroboration of the accomplices’ various accounts.

“There was evidence presented that the victim had anticipated selling Ecstasy pills to Defendant. There was found, in victim’s pocket, some $700. None of that cash was linked to Defendant.

“Evidence was produced that Defendant possessed a quantity of Ecstasy pills after the event. To begin with, those pills were never linked by evidence to the victim. Additionally, testimony was presented that Defendant “usually” or “often” or “frequently” or “always” had in his possession saleable quantities of Ecstasy. Hence, nothing for corroboration in the extraneous evidence – the cap, the weapon, the drugs, the attitude of Defendant — support for the accomplices’ ultimate inclusion of Defendant in the killing or even Defendant’s presence at the scene of the killing.

A police interview

“One of the last witnesses called was, again, Detective [Mark] Ryde. He was asked an extended series of questions by the defense, essentially going down each aspect of potential involvement, with the question: Other than the testimony of either [the nephew or girlfriend], do you know of any proof or evidence inculpating Defendant McCoy? To each question, Detective Ryde responded ‘No.’

“In sum, the evidence educed provided no corroboration of the State’s relied upon versions of the accomplices’ testimony. That testimony, standing alone, without corroboration is self-contradictory and contradictory of each other.

“The State has previously convicted both of those accomplices, who were unquestionably involved in the killing of Mr. Munford.

“There is nothing of legally sufficient reliability to demonstrate that Mr. McCoy was a third participant. The trier of fact, in this case the Court, simply can not be satisfied that the version of the facts ultimately emerging from – and only from – the two accomplices, which the State would like to rely upon is, beyond a reasonable doubt, true. It cannot safely be relied upon.

“Without complete reliance upon the selected accomplice testimony, the State cannot present a case for conviction.

“Great effort has been made by both the State and the police to gather, develop, and present all evidence conceivably available to it to support conviction.

“Unfortunately, in this case, everything must rest upon the uncorroborated, frequently contradictory, testimony of two accomplices, whose chosen version, upon careful examination, falls far short of being, beyond a reasonable doubt, true. That is the standard of proof required by law for conviction in Delaware.

“Because of that circumstance, a finding of Not Guilty to all charges against Defendant must be made.

“The bonds associated with these charges presently holding Defendant are released.”

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