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Court upholds Wilson man’s heroin death conviction

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The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has turned away a Wilson man’s challenge to his June 2017 conviction on heroin death charges, upholding a federal jury’s guilty verdict and the defendant’s 27-year prison term.

Elton Wayne Walston appealed his conviction, claiming U.S. District Judge Louise Flanagan violated his Sixth Amendment cross-examination rights by refusing to allow his counsel to ask witness Sarah Anne Mollenhauer about the penalties she faced before and after agreeing to testify against Walston in a plea bargain.

Circuit Judges William Traxler Jr., Allyson Kay Duncan and Stephanie Thacker rejected that argument in a four-page per curiam opinion released Wednesday, finding Flanagan’s restrictions to be reasonable in order to avoid prejudicing the jury.

“We conclude that the district court did not abuse its discretion in limiting Walston’s cross-examination of the witness and did not violate his right under the Confrontation Clause,” the judges wrote. “Here, as the initial charges the witness faced were the same as one of the charges for which Walston had been indicted, allowing Walston to inquire into the exact range of statutory penalties that the witness faced would have signaled to the jury the penalties Walston would face upon conviction.”

Citing the 1997 4th Circuit case United States v. Cropp, the appellate panel in Richmond, Virginia noted that “allowing the jury to learn of the sentence a defendant faces could potentially nullify the verdict.”

Jury nullification occurs when jurors refuse to convict due to disagreement with the law itself, which could include the mandatory sentence a charge carries. While the 4th Circuit has acknowledged jurors’ right to nullify, or set aside the law, it’s also ruled that trial judges should work to prevent that outcome and instruct juries to follow the law as explained in court.

“The court here properly weighed the slight probative value of quantitative information about the penalties the witness faced against the certain prejudice that would result if the jury learned that a guilty verdict would result in a mandatory minimum sentence for Walston,” the 4th Circuit opinion states.

The 27-year prison term amounts to an effective life sentence for Walston, who was 66 when he was convicted of distribution of heroin resulting in a death along with seven related drug charges. If he lives to see supervised release, Walston will be 93 years old.

Police and prosecutors say 43-year-old Timothy Alan Barkley suffered a fatal overdose in March 2015 after Walston sold him heroin. Walston was accused of peddling the drug in Wilson, Nash County and Greenville. Wilson police investigated the case and worked through a regional task force to facilitate federal prosecution.

In an October 2017 press conference at the Terry Sanford Federal Building in Raleigh, U.S. Attorney Robert Higdon signaled the heroin death charge could be applied more frequently as federal agents and prosecutors in his district work to combat the opioid epidemic.

“I am pleased that the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals has affirmed this conviction and sentence as we continue to try to stem the tide of drug distribution and death from overdose in the Eastern District of North Carolina,” Hidgon said in a Thursday written statement. “This was the first Eastern District of North Carolina prosecution using the drug-distribution-resulting-in-death statutory enhancement, but sadly, it will not be the last.

“Our district, like those across the nation, has seen an increase in opioid overdoses and deaths, and we are committed to using all the tools available to make our community a safer place.”

Circuit judges indicated that case law already on the books thwarted Walston’s appeal. The 4th Circuit panel chose not to hear oral arguments, finding the legal briefs sufficient to render a decision. The opinion is unpublished, meaning it does not constitute binding precedent.

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