‘Friends for life’: Hard-fought victory builds bond between client and defense team

A day into Rodney Wheeler’s murder trial earlier this year, the defense team unearthed a piece of game-changing information: The state had failed to produce potentially exculpatory evidence – a 2016 email from the lead detective to the lead prosecutor that showed the state’s eye witness had failed to accurately identify Mr. Wheeler, contradicting the detective’s probable cause certification.

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Rodney Wheeler with his defense team right after his acquittal. From left, Gary Shaleen, Deb Wilson, Rodney Wheeler, and Matt Sanders. Not shown is Tom Riley, the team’s investigator.

King County Superior Court Judge John Erlick declined to dismiss the case, but his ruling on the defense’s motion to do so was nonetheless scathing.

He found the state had engaged in “gross mismanagement” by failing to turn over the email, noted the “absolute necessity” of supplying such information to the defense, and criticized the state for “inexcusably” failing to do so. He also agreed with the defense that the state’s failure to disclose resulted in “severe and significant prejudice to the defendant as he was denied the opportunity for his counsel to properly prepare for his case,” and ruled that the statement made by the eyewitness to the lead detective regarding an identification was inadmissible.

Two months later, after deliberating only a few hours, a jury at the Maleng Regional Justice Center found Mr. Wheeler not guilty of second degree murder and second degree assault. Matt Sanders, one of his defense attorneys, wept at the verdict. So did Mr. Wheeler.

“I went into public defense because there are a lot of Black people in jail who shouldn’t be,” said Matt, who, like Mr. Wheeler, is African-American. “I thought, if I could prevent one of them from going to prison, maybe I will have accomplished something in life. Maybe I will have made a difference.”

Deborah Wilson, co-counsel on the case, was also emotionally overcome when the jury announced its verdict. Like Matt, she believed deeply in Mr. Wheeler’s innocence. “I don’t know how I would have dealt with it if we had lost,” she said.

The case came to Deb and Matt – both public defenders at DPD’s Associated Counsel for the Accused Division – in 2017, nearly a year after Mr. Wheeler had been charged and sent to jail, held on a $1 million bail. He had scraped together over $20,000 to hire a well-known Seattle defense attorney, who appeared to do very little for him during that year, Matt said. By the time they met him in jail, Mr. Wheeler was skeptical and discouraged.

Mr. Wheeler had been charged in the murder of Justin Love, a 28-year-old construction worker from Oregon who was staying at the Motel 6 in SeaTac; Mr. Love was shot and killed on Aug. 31, 2016, after an altercation in the motel parking lot. From the beginning, Mr. Wheeler said he was innocent.

Matt and Deb quickly got up to speed, a well-paired team who won Mr. Wheeler’s respect and admiration even as they formed a bond with him. Deb, a former investigator who is highly organized, was able to keep track of the many disparate pieces of information, creating lists of all the key issues they needed to pursue. Matt was the one who would stay up all night, writing briefs in support of new motions after each new and often surprising twist in the case. They both worked long hours and nearly every weekend.

Assisting them in the case were Tom Riley, an investigator, and Gary Shaleen, a paralegal, who also played key roles. Tom visited the crime scene, a fenced area behind the motel littered with syringes and bottles, some 20 times. Gary attended a portion of the trial every day. “We all had our heads in the game,” Deb said.

The state’s case was weak, both Deb and Matt said. There was no weapon or other forensic evidence. Everything rested on some grainy video footage from the motel’s 32 surveillance cameras and some contradictory eye witness accounts. One person, for instance, said the shooter was small and had dreadlocks. Mr. Wheeler is large and has close-cropped hair. Another said the shooter took off in a small black car. Mr. Wheeler’s car was white.

There were also discrepancies in the timeline. A videographer whom Matt found on the eve of the trial was able to create a compelling narrative from time-stamped segments of video footage, showing that Mr. Wheeler walked across the parking lot and away from the motel two minutes before the altercation began and five minutes before Mr. Love was shot.

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A still from KIRO 7’s news coverage. At far left is Matt Sanders, addressing Judge Bill Bowman, the first judge in the case.

Along the way, both public defenders said, there were also huge missteps by the state. The detective, for instance, failed to preserve video from all the cameras, retaining just one hour’s worth of footage. The detective had two bullet casings found at the site fingerprinted, thereby destroying any DNA that might have been on them. And most striking of all was the way the state handled the eye witness accounts.

Briefly put, the detective said in her cert of probable cause that the key eye witness identified Mr. Wheeler based on his clothing, when the email the defense obtained as the trial began showed that the eye witness said nothing about clothing and only identified a backpack. What’s more, the state failed to produce all the emails pertaining to the eye witness’s identification, despite the judge’s order to do so and despite the state insisting all emails had been turned over. The defense obtained that critical email only after serving the King County Sheriff’s Office with a subpoena duces tecum.

“The detective clearly decided who the shooter was before she had any basis to do so,” Matt said. “It’s one of the most egregious situations I’ve ever seen.”

Mr. Wheeler was acquitted on March 1, 2019, and over the months, Matt and Deb have stayed in touch with him. A graduate of Garfield High School, Mr. Wheeler was the father of a six-month-old son when he was arrested and jailed. He’s now helping to parent his nearly three-year-old son. He’s also gotten a job, recently attended his eldest son’s graduation from college, and is deeply involved in the lives of his children.

Deb says she often gets notes and emails not only from Mr. Wheeler, but also his mother. “The whole family is wonderful,” she said.

“He’s going to be our friend for life,” Matt added. “We basically went through war together. It was a traumatic experience, and we now share a remarkable bond.”


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