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Supreme Court orders new trial in Boone County DUI with death case

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — A Boone County man convicted on four counts of DUI causing death will get a new trial following an opinion handed down by the state Supreme Court Thursday.

The High Court said the jury pool that convicted Frank Gene Thompson, 42, in 2016 was tainted because of comments made before the trial began by Boone County Circuit Judge William Thompson.

Frank Thompson was arrested in September 2014 after he wrecked his truck on U.S. Route 119 near Danville. Four people died in the fiery crash, including Thompson’s young children, he was the only one to survive. Police alleged he was high on meth and Xanax at the time of the crash.

MORE Read Supreme Court opinion here

Judge Thompson called in a jury pool on the morning the trial was scheduled to begin in March 2016. Frank Thompson was in negotiations with prosecutors that same morning for what looked like a possible plea deal. The judge decided to send the jury pool home but made a few comments first.

“I want to say that even though you all didn’t really do anything, you really did a lot. The fact that he knew there was 56 people out here waiting to make a decision on his guilt or innocence I’m sure weighed heavily on his mind and ultimately caused him to decide to accept the plea agreement that the State had offered. I can’t really tell you much more about the case but he probably did everyone a favor by doing the plea. It was a pretty tragic case,” the judge said.

The plea deal fell through and Judge Thompson called the same jury pool back the next day. He gave the potential jurors an instruction concerning his comments the day before. Those comments included:

“anything this Court might have stated upon releasing the jury shall not be considered at any time by this jury panel, nor jury as evidence, and shall not be viewed in reaching any decisions
on this matter.”

A jury was seated and Frank Thompson was convicted on all counts against him. He was later sentenced to life in prison with a chance for parole in 21 years. He appealed the conviction in connection with the judge’s comments and what he called insufficient evidence against him to gain a conviction.

The High Court opinion, authored by Chief Justice Margaret Workman, said the jury pool was tainted by the judge’s comments.

“Petitioner asserts the trial court’s comments to the jury pool irrevocably tainted the group and constituted a denial of his constitutional rights to fair trial by an impartial jury when the petit jury was selected from the biased jury pool. We agree,” Workman wrote. “A criminal defendant’s right to be tried by an impartial judge and jury is sacrosanct, regardless of the evidence against him or her.”

Thursday’s Court opinion rejects the insufficient evidence claim.

“Based upon our review, the evidence offered against Petitioner—when viewed in the light most favorable to the State, and when all inferences and credibility determinations are also viewed in the light most favorable to the State—was sufficient to sustain his respective convictions in this case beyond a reasonable doubt,” the opinion said.

The case has been remanded back to Boone County Circuit Court for a new trial.

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