Mercy option on kidnapping could get more discussion

FAYETTEVILLE, W.Va. — Following the conclusion of the Thomas Gene Carter Jr. trial last week, both Fayette County Prosecutor Larry Harrah and public defender Scott Steanten expressed their concern over the “mercy” provision now governing kidnapping law.

In 2012, the West Virginia Legislature added new provisions to the law–including the possibility of mercy as decided by a jury.

In Fayette County, this was the first time they’d needed to deal with the provision, which caused certain confusion for both the prosecution and the defense.

“Whether I think it’s okay or not, it doesn’t matter,” Larry Harrah said. “It’s really what the legislature thinks. But I’ll tell you what. I’m going to be contacting my local representatives and tell them how I feel about it. Because it’s just unclear and just causes confusion.”

A jury found Carter guilty of first degree sexual assault, first degree sexual abuse, first degree robbery, and kidnapping in the conclusion of the 2014 White Oaks Rail Trail rape case on Thursday.

“The way they’ve set up the question of mercy–the penalties really haven’t changed–but the way they’ve set up the question of mercy, they’ve set it up exactly like first degree murder,” Steanten said.

Under West Virginia Code §61-2-14a, defining the crime and punishment:

“(1) A jury may, in their discretion, recommend mercy, and if such recommendation is added to their verdict, such person shall be eligible for parole in accordance with the provisions of said article twelve;”

“We did, in this trial, is try to make it as if it were a first degree murder case and we were asking for mercy and a mercy phase to the trial,” Steanten said.

Steanten said that the Carter verdict will be appealed, and hopefully the Supreme Court will be able to answer the questions of procedure that plagued the trial on it’s final days.

“The legislature put in some of these questions about were they released without being harmed,” Steanten said. “Now the old statute had some similar sort of language, but this statute now kind of sets up with jury interrogatories.”

Those procedural questions were not the only thing that bothered Steanten. During the course of the trial, the Prosecution submitted a great deal of physical and DNA evidence, but Steanten questioned why only certain items were biologically tested.

“Here we’ve got this case, and this case the state had evidence and good evidence from the police lab,” he said. “But what a shame that they stop.”

Steanten said more resources need to be made available for the State Police labs who do the testing so that they have more man-power available to do more thorough testing.

“What if somebody else’s DNA is on some other tab?” he asked. “What if there is just more evidence?”

Steanten believes increasing those resources would improve the State’s ability to prosecute cases while lowering the overall margin of error.

“We’ve got the technology to test all those things,” he said. “Why the heck can’t we just do it? We can’t do it because we don’t have enough money or enough people or something. That’s a problem.”

Thomas Gene Carter Jr. faces a sentencing hearing on Oct. 6.