How important is it for a criminal-defense attorney to impeach a prosecution witness -- when he has the opportunity -- especially in a child sexual abuse case that carries profound penalties?
Records in State of Missouri v. Scott J. Wells ((No. 31302CF5509) show that missed opportunities to impeach can have profound consequences for a client who is facing a likely punishment of five life sentences, plus 55 years. Still, with so much riding on the outcome, Springfield, MO, attorney David Shuler -- my brother -- missed opportunities to tear holes in the prosecution's case. An expert witness in Scott Wells' subsequent legal-malpractice case shows how David Shuler was center stage in a classic case of ineffective assistance of counsel -- one that almost put an innocent man behind bars for life.
Daniel Dodson, an attorney from Jefferson City, MO, got a guilty verdict overturned after showing a complaining witness falsely stated that Scott Wells had scars on his penis. Why would four complaining witnesses -- two biological daughters, one step-daughter, and a niece -- concoct stories that Scott Wells had sexually abused them? Evidence in the record suggests it was because Wells' ex wife (Cynthia Hedrick) wanted her new husband (Jeff Hedrick) to adopt at least two of the girls -- and Wells refused to go along with the plan.
Dodson showed in a new-trial hearing -- which ended with Judge Don Burrell reversing his own guilty verdict -- that David Shuler had an opportunity to impeach Cynthia Hedrick after she had denied having plans for adoptions. Shuler, however, let the opportunity pass, contributing to a guilty verdict for Scott Wells -- which only was overturned once Dodson came on the scene.
After the guilty verdict was reversed, Wells filed a civil complaint for legal malpractice against Shuler -- with Dodson serving as expert witness for the plaintiff. Dodson shows in a deposition how witnesses in child sexual abuse cases can provide (knowingly or unknowingly) false testimony that proves ruinous for adults. He also shows how David Shuler failed to counter false testimony from the girls -- and convince the trier of fact that it likely originated with the ex-wife's statements about adoption.
Below is testimony from Dodson's deposition, focusing on the sometimes dubious testimony of child witnesses, and Shuler's failure to impeach Cynthia Hedrick. The testimony begins on page 94 of the first document embedded at the end of this post. The questioner is Scott E. Bellm, from the Turner Reid Duncan firm of Springfield, representing David Shuler:
Bellm: Part of what you were going to do -- part of the process that you went through to defend Scott was to develop a theory of the case, true?
Bellm: And part of the theory that you were going to have to develop and address at trial, a big question at trial, was to explain why these four girls were making up these terrible stories about Mr. Wells, according to him.
Dodson: . . . There are various issues. First of all, the three daughters, the two natural daughters and the stepdaughter, it's very clear, even though the mother was untruthful about it on the stand, that there had been several discussions about them wanting to be adopted by their stepdad. The motivation there, I mean, ultimately take a look at Scott Wells. He's a funny-looking guy. He's not necessarily the dad you want to walk around the shopping center with. He's got an odd demeanor. He has big eyes. He walks funny.
Little girls -- and especially little girls in a family like this, where I don't sense that the mother had a lot of control, there wasn't a lot of incentive for them to develop a sense of right and wrong and truth and dishonesty. Their motivation was they wanted to get away from Scott. And I think that started with Brittany. The suggestion comes in, Courtney's on board, then Alicia's on board, then her cousin, who -- and I think she's the one who at first said, no, I don't remember anything like that. And it's almost like, well, you know, holy cow, if he found Courtney attractive enough to fondle, I can hardly say that I wasn't that attractive, too.
There are various motivations. There is no way to know -- there's also no way to know for sure whether they have convinced themselves that they're telling the truth. But you can certainly present to a jury the reasons to understand how they might have gotten to a point where they're in court, telling things that are not truthful.
Dodson: Since then, no. No.
Bellm: Okay. Are you aware of any proceeding -- conversation with Scott where he was asked to give up his parental rights by any of those girls after the fact?
Dodson: I don't think so. I'm not sure though.
Bellm: Do you know whether, in fact, they have been adopted by anyone?
Dodson: I don't know.
Bellm: If they have not, they have not undertaken to terminate Scott's parental rights in light of all these things, not taken any affirmative steps toward getting an adoption through -- with their stepfather with that theory or motive?
Dodson: I don't think so. They have got -- in effect, they have got what they want. Scott's out of their lives . . .
Bellm: . . . have you done any additional work, whether it be notes or what have you, where you have memorialized any of your opinions or thoughts, just for the civil case?
Dodson: No. I have, and this is an ongoing thing -- I mean, I speak with Scott every now and then, because his family still gets told that they can't have their kids in Scott's presence because of these allegations.
Bellm: But those aren't really issues for Scott, as much as his parents?
Dodson: Oh, they're big issues for Scott. He's told that he can't be around the house when his nieces or nephews are around and so on and so forth. Yeah, it's a huge issue for him. It weighs on him terribly. I can tell when I talk to him.
(To be continued)
Previously in the series:
* Court finds Missouri lawyer David Shuler provided ineffective assistance of counsel (11/13/18)
* Missouri attorney David Shuler took no action at trial . . . (11/27/18)
* David Shuler, unable to react to false testimony that Scott J. Wells had scars on his penis . . . (12/4/18)
* Expert testifies that Missouri lawyer David Shuler did not believe in his own client . . . (12/10/18)
* Record suggests Scott J. Wells faced charges because his ex wife wanted her new husband to adopt girls . . . (1/3/19)