Court hears motions in trial on 2011 drug death

NEW CUMBERLAND – A Youngstown man accused in the death of a Newell woman in 2011 wants a judge to keep statements he made to police out of his upcoming trial.

Jarell A. Washington, 24, filed the motion to suppress evidence and statements with 1st Judicial Circuit Court Judge Martin J. Gaughan, stating that authorities lacked “reasonable suspicion and probable cause” to arrest him.

The motion makes no specific allegations of misconduct on the part of the Hancock County Sheriff’s Department, but says Washington should not have been interrogated after he asked for legal counsel.

Washington is being held in the Northern Regional Jail in Moundsville on a $100,000 bond on charges of first-degree murder and delivery of a controlled substance.

He is accused of causing the death of Kristen Renfro, 30, of Newell, by supplying her with heroin, a Schedule I controlled substance, on March 7, 2011. Renfro died in the early morning hours of the following day. An autopsy found that she died with fatal concentrations of morphine and methadone in her blood.

Washington was indicted by the Hancock County grand jury in September 2012 and is scheduled to go to trial on Aug. 29, although Hancock County Prosecutor Jim Davis described that date as “optimistic.”

The motion to suppress, filed by Wheeling attorney Robert McCoid, states that Washington was “laboring under psychiatric distress impinging on his competence” and was under the influence of alcohol and drugs during the time of his questioning by police.

The motion asks Gaughan to suppress any evidence or statements obtained by electronically-intercepted communications, searches and post-arrest interrogations by Hancock County sheriff’s investigators.

Another motion asks for permission for Washington’s defense attorneys to use pre-trial juror questionnaires and follow-up questions during jury selection.

The more rigorous voir dire procedures are necessary, the motion said, to obtain a “fair, unbiased and objective jury,” to ascertain if there is “hostile community sentiment” toward Washington, to determine the likelihood of racial prejudice on the jury and to see if media coverage of the case has hurt Washington’s chances of getting a fair trial.

The motion notes that only 2.5 percent of the population in Hancock County is African-American, creating the likelihood that Washington, who is black, will be tried before an all-white jury.

Other defense motions ask for an early copy of the grand jury transcript and the bifurcation of the merit phase and penalty phase of the trial.

Even though West Virginia does not have the death penalty, Washington’s case is considered a capital case because it can result in a life prison sentence, Davis said.

In a capital case, the jury not only determines if a defendant is guilty or not guilty but also if a defendant will serve life in prison. In the sentencing phase of the trial, the jury decides either for life in prison or life with mercy – meaning the defendant is eligible for parole after 15 years, Davis said.

McCoid could not be reached for comment.