A Martinsville Circuit Court jury recently acquitted Will Antwan Witcher of various charges related to drugs and guns.
The jury found Witcher, 29, of 830 Clearview Drive, Martinsville, not guilty of possession of a gun with a Schedule I or II drug, possession of a firearm by a violent felon, distribution of marijuana and possession of cocaine with intent to distribute.
The charges had arisen from a traffic stop Aug. 26, 2017, during which Martinsville Police found drugs and weapons in the vehicle, but prosecutors couldn’t prove that Witcher knew they were there and there was no police body-camera footage to show how the traffic stop unfolded.
Martinsville Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Paula Bowen said in an interview Tuesday that a number of factors possibly might have influenced the jury’s decision.
“It was a difficult case because it was a constructive possession case,” meaning that the drugs and gun were not on Witcher’s person but were within reaching distance, Bowen said.
She also said that police officer body-camera footage had not been preserved — because “it was not downloaded before it aged off the system.” She said there is a certain time frame that it can be accessed.
Martinsville Police Chief Eddie Cassady on Wednesday said he didn’t have the specifics about the body-camera footage in this particular case without looking into it further.
But he said the police department’s practice is to download the footage at the end of the officer’s shift. The video file is kept on a server for 90 days, at which time it will be purged from the server unless it had been marked as evidence either by the police department or the commonwealth’s attorney’s office, which automatically preserves it.
“We do the best we can to present cases [to the commonwealth’s attorney’s office and the court], to find out the truth of what happened,” Cassady said.
He also pointed out that his department recently was re-accredited by the Virginia Law Enforcement Professional Standards Commission, a 4-year process measuring how a department keeps up with 192 professional standards.
Attorney Darren Haley, who defended Witcher, mentioned several possible factors that he thinks may have influenced the jury’s decision, including the absence of the body-cam footage.
“I think the fact there was a videotape [footage] that was no longer available, along with no direct evidence that Mr. Witcher had knowledge of what was in the car, other than him being in the car with it, was basically what the jury hung its decision on,” Haley said.
Haley said he believes the body-cam video no longer being available probably resulted from a delay in the case after a delay in getting drug analysis reports back from a state lab.
Although Witcher was arrested when his vehicle was stopped and then arraigned and released on bond on Sept. 1, those charges were dropped Jan. 31, 2018, with an option for prosecutors to refile them. Witcher was arrested again on May 8, 2018, and arraigned later in May.
“I think the prosecutor put on a good case with what she had to work with. We really focused on the element of the law that requires knowledge [by the defendant]. There was lack of knowledge,” Haley said.
Haley said the items in the car were not in plain view: The cocaine was wrapped in a bag near the emergency brake. The officer said it was hard to see, and he just happened to see it. The gun was in a backpack, and the marijuana was in a back floorboard, Haley said.
“The fact you may not know, it was reasonable doubt. You just don’t know,” Haley said.
The criminal complaint by MPD Lt. R.J. Barrow alleged that Officer J.D. Purvis stopped a Chevrolet Trailblazer bearing a Virginia tag at Clearview Drive and Glendale Street for not having visible tag lights. Witcher was the driver and registered owner of the vehicle.
While speaking with Witcher, Purvis reported in the complaint that he noticed a strong odor of marijuana coming from the vehicle.
A subsequent search of the vehicle by Purvis produced a grocery bag in the driver’s floorboard that contained two bags of white powder material that field-tested positive for cocaine, the complaint stated. Also located were a black backpack in the front passenger seat that contained a Smith and Wesson 9mm handgun, ziplock bag containing a large quantity of U.S. currency, two bags of plant material, digital scale and multiple cell phones.
The items were submitted to the Department of Forensic Science Western Laboratory, which in a certificate of analysis showed that two knotted plastic bags weighed 25.88 grams and contained cocaine.
The certificate of analysis also showed that one yellow plastic bag, one large ziplock plastic bag that contained plant material and two knotted plastic bags that each contained plant material were submitted. The contents of one of the bags were found to contain marijuana, with net weight of approximately 303 grams. “The gross weight of the remainder was 27.35 gram(s) including innermost packaging,” the certificate of analysis stated.
Paul Collins is a reporter for the Martinsville Bulletin. Contact him at 276-638-8801, ext. 236.