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Misconduct by Prosecutor in River Market corpse case

Misconduct cited in River Market corpse case
MARK MORRIS, The Kansas City Star
PUBLICATION: Kansas City Star, The (MO)

SECTION: BREAKING

DATE: February 11, 2009

EDITION: 1
Citing misconduct by a prosecutor, a Jackson County judge threw out guilty pleas Tuesday of a man convicted in 2005 of abandoning a woman’s body in his Jeep Cherokee.

In a strongly-worded ruling, Judge Edith L. Messina found that Assistant County Prosecutor Dan Miller withheld hundreds of pages of investigative records from Matthew Davis’ defense lawyers and had “deliberately and fraudulently misled the court and defense counsel.”

“As a result,” Messina wrote in her ruling, “a continuing fraud was perpetrated upon the trial and motion courts.”

Davis was sentenced to 22 years in prison for abandoning Amber McGathey’s body and for three counts of possession of a controlled substance.

McGathey, 22, died of a drug overdose in Davis’ apartment in June 2004. He loaded her body into his Jeep, parked it in the River Market area and let it decompose for days.

Davis contended that he had tried to contact a lawyer and discuss the body with him. Messina noted in her order that the records withheld from Davis’ criminal defense attorney contained evidence supporting that claim. She noted that Davis’ first criminal lawyer, John Picerno, had testified that such information would have provided a “complete defense” to the charge of abandoning the body.

Because of the suppressed evidence, Davis’ guilty plea was neither “voluntary or intelligent,” Messina concluded.

In testimony during hearings on the issue, Miller suggested that the information he withheld was part of an ongoing murder investigation, an explanation that Messina said “defies logic.”

“Mr. Miller’s suggestion that a prosecutor can determine whether material may be withheld because, in the mind of the prosecutor, it is not relevant has been resoundingly rejected by the court of appeals,” Messina wrote.

Jackson County Prosecutor Jim Kanatzar announced this afternoon that he has referred the allegations to state authorities who investigate misconduct by lawyers.

In the meantime, the prosecutor’s office will continue to pursue the criminal case against Davis, Kanatzar said.

Davis’ defense lawyer, Pat Peters, was in court this morning and unavailable for comment.

Messina said she soon would begin considering how to penalize the prosecutor’s office for the discovery violations. She warned lawyers that such litigation likely would be complex. Generally, when guilty pleas and convictions are thrown out, a defendant merely returns to the same position he was in before the guilty plea — that is, facing a trial.

In this case, however, Messina noted that Davis already has paid three criminal lawyers for years and also has faced a civil case in which he was ordered to pay $500,000 to McGathey’s parents.

“Due to the fraud perpetrated by the prosecutor, to place (Davis) in the position he would have been prior to the fraud will be difficult,” Messina.