Crime

Jail informant in trial over Chester killing: Snitch or crucial piece to conviction?

Christopher Moore in a Winnsboro courtroom earlier this week.
Christopher Moore in a Winnsboro courtroom earlier this week. tkulmala@heraldonline.com

In the profession of prosecutors, the ultimate gamble paid off.

Using an alleged bad guy, an accused killer – his weapon a truck – to seek a guilty verdict in another murder case.

It worked late Thursday afternoon – and an admitted killer went to prison for life with a push from another alleged killer.

Aside from a new 12-person jury seated this week, the only real difference between the April hung jury mistrial trial where Christopher Moore stood accused of murder in the shooting death of Chester councilman Odell Williams in November 2014 has been was the prosecutors’ use of a jailhouse informant in the 11th hour of the second trial.

The informant – some would call a “snitch” – is a criminal defendant himself facing a serious felony involving death. Stevie Breland, 58, facing the possibility of decades in prison for not just allegedly killing a woman on Interstate 77 earlier this year, but covering up the crime so extensively by hiding pieces of evidence that a 40-year judge in denying bond in April said, “If somebody goes to this extent to cover up a crime, what extent will they go to avoid prosecution?”

The same prosecutors who said in that bond hearing two months ago that Breland was a cover-up scammer were able to use Breland to secure a jury verdict of guilty against Moore that put them over the top and won a conviction for murder in the killing of Williams in this second trial.

Moore was found guilty of murder and of possession of a weapon during a violent crime. He was sentenced to life in prison by Judge Paul Burch.

Moore’s first trial in April ended with a mistrial when some jurors believed Moore acted in self-defense. Yet prosecutors threw in this late evidence from Breland that can be viewed as unreliable or even self-serving. Breland testified that Moore admitted that he got out of the truck in November 2014 to kill Williams.

Moore again testified he acted in self-defense – and his lawyer again said so in closing arguments Thursday. Prosecutors said again Thursday in closing arguments that Moore is a liar who waited for Williams then shot him in the face in a barrage of 17 shots – and they introduced a jailhouse informant that allegedly backs up that assertion.

The jury believed prosecutors – and maybe, Breland. Moore was convicted.

And the final chapter in a politically charged case that ripped apart the city of Chester and Chester County with gang violence and the death of a councilman was read: Guilty.

Legal experts were split that prosecutors introducing a jailhouse informant in the late stages of the trial to try to hammer the credibility of Moore’s claim of self-defense was a risky move.

Jurors typically do not put great weight in the testimony of jailhouse informants, said Colin Miller, a University of South Carolina law school professor and expert on evidence.

“They usually don’t move the needle much, if at all,” Miller said.

Yet jurors may have seen prosecutors bringing in Moore’s cellmate, facing his own legal problems, as a “last ditch effort” by prosecutors to try to win a conviction in the second trial, Miller said.

“It could look like desperation in the eyes of the jurors,” Miller said.

Ultimately, the jury believed Moore did not act in self-defense. That Moore could have run away. But he chose not to, and he killed a 69-year-old former cop in cold blood.

Tom McKinney, a criminal defense lawyer in York County for 51 years before retiring from trial work earlier this year, agreed that it was “risky” for prosecutors to introduce the “snitch,” but prosecutors appeared to be “pulling out all the stops” in an attempt to get a conviction against Moore in the second trial after the first trial ended in a hung jury.

An informant's testimony is always looked at with at least skepticism, if not downright cynicism and incredulity, McKinney said.

“Prosecutors must have decided that they were willing to take the risk of putting this guy on the stand,” McKinney said.

Yet Kenneth Gaines, another USC law professor and expert in criminal trials and strategy, said Breland’s testimony could have been the last-minute “gift” that prosecutors needed to get a guilty verdict. While it is always highly suspect when a witness comes forward this late in the trial, Gaines said Breland’s testimony is not really a gamble and could help the state’s case – depending on what the jury believes.

“It fits their theory of the case,” Gaines said. “I think it’s more of a gift for them (prosecutors).”

Breland’s testimony is not considered hearsay because the defendant is the one who allegedly made the statements, according to Gaines.

Both Miller and McKinney said that the political realities in the case – Odell Williams, the victim, was a sitting councilman, a former policeman and beloved community figure – means that the public expected prosecutors to do all they can do to try to seek a conviction against Moore – who admitted shooting Williams.

A public that is demanding justice for a slain councilman – even one who by all accounts was chasing Moore and others through the streets and shooting at them first – means that prosecutors late in the game played one last wild card: The snitch.

Yet Moore’s own testimony was seen as likely outweighing the value or import of the informant, the experts said, as the key to the trial seemed to still rest on whether the jury believed Moore acted in self-defense or was lying in wait and committed murder.

Jurors ultimately decide who they believe is truthful and who is a liar, said McKinney the 51-year courtroom veteran.

And on Thursday in Winnsboro, 12 people believed that Christopher Moore – and may have believed the snitch, too – lay in a ditch on a cold November night and with malice and motive and violent actions fired into the face of a respected councilman and former cop who was trying to defend his wife and the people of Chester.

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