Convict’s appeal could hinge on key witness: Mayor Karl Dean

Monday, February 4, 2013 at 3:32am

Karl Dean raised his right hand and recited an oath from Judge Randall Wyatt as he was sworn in as mayor in 2007. Last week, that scene repeated itself under very different circumstances in Davidson County Criminal Court.

This time, Dean was being sworn in as a witness in an appeal of a 15-year-old double murder case. The man convicted, Steven McCain, is attempting to reverse his sentence due to ineffective counsel — and Dean plays a key role in McCain’s case.

Dean, Jodie Bell and Wendy Tucker, now a senior adviser to Dean on education, all represented McCain in their respective roles within the Public Defender’s Office. (Dean was first elected as Public Defender in 1990 and continued in the role until 1999.)

McCain is alleging that ineffective counsel led to his conviction. A petition for post-conviction relief called Dean “lazy.”

McCain, who was convicted of two counts of first-degree murder, waited nearly 10 years to get his post-conviction motion heard by a judge.

The trio of attorneys testified in front of Judge Wyatt in McCain’s case on Jan. 29.

McCain maintains that reports from several witnesses corroborate his version of events, but weren’t used by his attorneys at trial.

The jury sided with an account of the events that had McCain entering a residence with a coat concealing a sawed off .22 caliber rifle.

But Jamal Cooper dropped McCain off at the scene of the crime — and testified last week that McCain wasn’t wearing a coat and didn’t have a gun.

“It takes the murder weapon out of my hand,” McCain said at the hearing last week.

But Cooper was never called to the stand during the trial by McCain’s counsel.

Assistant District Attorney General Katrin Miller, meanwhile, pointed out that the murder weapon was discovered in the crawl space of a house that McCain was staying in.

According to McCain’s account, he shot Reginald Conwell in self-defense as they both lunged for a gun — but it was McCain’s friend Phillip Leslie who committed the double murder. Leslie returned to the residence and killed Conwell and another man, Malbourne Angiers, McCain said.

That story is consistent with what McCain initially told police after being arrested in Alabama following the crime.

McCain’s attorney David Collins showed the court a crime scene photo that depicted Conwell lying face down on a kitchen floor with a smear of blood behind him. The implication was that Conwell had crawled across the floor before Leslie came in to deliver the fatal shot.

After the trial, McCain filed a Freedom of Information Act request to receive his entire case file from the District Attorney’s Office. He found two police interviews with neighbors that described other people entering the house after he had left and before the two bodies were discovered.

Dean testified on the witness stand that he didn’t remember whether or not those reports were made available to him.

“Again, going back over a decade ago ... I don’t know [if I saw those reports],” Dean said in court. “It would have been of interest, but the impact of it, I can’t testify to.”

Bell took her opinion a step further, saying that the reports would have been “relevant” and “something we would have reviewed.” Bell said she would have done an in-depth canvass of the neighborhood in search of more corroboration had she been presented with that information now.

McCain also claims that Dean, Bell and Tucker instructed him to testify that he was a drug dealer — a fact that he claims is immaterial to the case.

“Had it been up to me, I never would have told the jury I was a drug dealer,” McCain said. “It was there to inflame the jurors.”

Miller, on the other hand, said the only reason McCain was at the scene was to sell drugs, so that fact was important to the case.

Dean said he believes he and the rest of the legal team fulfilled their responsibilities.

“We did our best, and I would say Ms. Bell and Ms. Tucker are very good lawyers,” the mayor said.

Judge Wyatt said he expects to take two to three weeks to review the case file and make a ruling on post-conviction relief.