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There’s a widespread belief that all lawyers are “trial lawyers” who spend most of their time representing clients in front of judges and juries. This is not true.
Many attorneys rarely, if ever, get to court, much less successfully handle a murder trial.
In 2015, attorney Tucker Hull, a Wake Forest law school grad, had been practicing at the Harrisburg offices of two large national law firms for about six years, and he probably would have told you that he belonged in the second group.
When asked about his criminal law experience up to that point, Hull, who has since opened his own office in Annville, bluntly answered “none.”
“I had tried several cases, but they were all civil.”
That all changed the day the Pennsylvania Innocence Project contacted Hull’s old firm and asked it to represent Larry “Trent” Roberts, who had been serving a life sentence since 2006 for a Dauphin County murder conviction.
Roberts’ conviction grew out of the 2005 nighttime shooting death of a Harrisburg man as he sat in his car. It was largely based on eyewitness testimony placing Roberts at the scene shortly after shots were fired, and on the interpretation of call times and locations in Roberts’ cellphone records.
Roberts repeatedly denied that he had anything to do with the murder, insisting that he had been far from the scene.
By the time the Innocence Project reached out to Hull’s firm and asked it to represent Roberts pro bono, it had already conducted an extensive investigation of the crime and conviction, and concluded that he was not the murderer.
“They go through a very long and thorough vetting process,” Hull said. “They take a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of cases that come in.”
Investigating the conviction
To get their client a new trial, Hull, his senior partner, Tom Schmidt, and Innocence Project attorney Nilam Sanghvi first had to convince a judge that the original conviction should be thrown out.
Under what is known as the Brady Rule, prosecutors and police have a duty to give a defendant evidence that could point to innocence, cast doubt on the truthfulness of a prosecution witness, or reduce a sentence.
While poring through documents produced by the District Attorney, Hull and his colleagues found two emails that had not been revealed to Roberts before his first trial.
An internal District Attorney email referred to a plea bargain that had been given to a key prosecution witness who placed Roberts at the murder scene. That witness had denied under oath that he had been given any deal.
The plea deal, had it been known to Roberts at the first trial, could have been revealed to the jury, allowing them to consider whether the witness was testifying falsely to get lenient treatment in his own case.
The second internal D.A. email was from the lead detective on the case. In it, he expressed doubts about Roberts’ guilt because several cellphone calls from Roberts to the victim were originally, and incorrectly, assumed to have been made before the time of death.
But the call records, it turned out, used Pacific, not Eastern time.
The time zone difference put Roberts’ calls to the victim after the murder, not before, suggesting that Roberts had not called to set up a fatal meeting. And, it strengthened Roberts’ argument that he was nowhere near the scene when the murder occurred, because the call records also gave an approximate location of his phone.
Had the detective’s doubts about Roberts’ guilt been disclosed at the first trial, Roberts’ attorney could have challenged his testimony and argued to the jurors that they should have the same doubts and return a not guilty verdict.
Conviction thrown out, new trial granted
Roberts’ defense team asked for a new trial under Pennsylvania’s Post Conviction Relief Act. Attorneys and judges refer to these proceedings as “PCRA actions.”
In 2017, after a multi-day PCRA hearing, a Dauphin County judge agreed, threw out the conviction, and ordered a new trial. He cited the failure to turn over the emails, prosecution eyewitnesses recanting their testimony, and the failure of Roberts’ first attorney to present an alibi defense.
New trial awards after a conviction are uncommon in PCRA actions.
Second trial, not guilty verdict
Roberts’ second trial started on September 9.
Over the next week, Hull, Schmidt, and Sanghvi hammered away at the reliability of the prosecution’s eyewitness identifications, presented alibi evidence that Roberts – and his phone – weren’t at the scene, and highlighted the time and location problems in the cellphone records.
Roberts testified in his own defense, with Hull performing the critical task of questioning him on direct examination.
After a week long trial and 2 1/2 hours of deliberation, the jury returned a “not guilty” verdict, and Trent Roberts was a free man for the first time in 13 years.
Free legal services: Pro bono publico
Hull and his colleagues spent over four years representing Roberts for free. His original law firm picked up most of the expenses through trial, including the cost of expert witnesses who testified about the critical cellphone and eyewitness identification issues.
In the beginning, while still with his old firm, Hull could rely on a steady salary, although he received no extra pay for the Roberts case. And there were always other attorneys who could cover for him on his other cases.
That changed when Hull left his old firm, opened his own law office in Annville, and could only depend on himself.
So why did Hull volunteer for what he knew would consume hundreds of hours of his time over several years?
“For me, getting involved was twofold,” he said. “My firm encouraged young attorneys to take pro bono work, something that interested them, and to get into court to get experience.”
“Second, when I looked at the package the Innocence Project sent us, I was convinced from the start that they had the wrong guy.”
Why did he stick with the case after his regular and reliable paycheck stopped?
“I’ve been invested in this for five years,” Hull said. “Over that time, Trent called me from state prison almost every Thursday morning. I genuinely believed he was innocent.”
But would he take a case like this again? Hull is not sure. Referring to all the other work that had piled up during the trial, he could only say “I’m still digging out.”
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