A local man convicted after a trial for which the main witness couldn’t be found won’t get a new trial, the state’s highest court has ruled.
Nonetheless, state officials said Wednesday, William L. Hilts was released from prison Tuesday with the help of good conduct time.
The witness testified at a first trial against Hilts, a trial where the jury deadlocked.
At the second, the witness couldn’t be found, resulting in the testimony from the first case being read to the jury. That trial ended in conviction.
The Court of Appeals found no fault in the prosecution, only a brief conversation between the prosecutor and witness that would have been new at the second trial.
“Considering the large quantity of evidence impeaching the informant’s credibility that defendant had available — and used — at the first trial, the informant’s request and the prosecutor’s noncommittal response were immaterial as a mater of law,” the court ruled.
The informant had asked for help disposing of an unrelated case, while the prosecutor replied that he would “revisit” the request with the office prosecuting that case.
Hilts was sentenced to 10 to 20 years in state prison; prior to trial he rejected plea deals that would have gotten him as little as 1 1/2 to three years. He maintained his innocence throughout.
However, with drug law reforms and appropriate merit time, Hilts was released from state custody Tuesday after serving more than six years, officials confirmed.
The Court of Appeals heard arguments in the case in November. Hilts was convicted in 2004 of a drug sale the prior year.
The first jury couldn’t come to a verdict, the second convicted. In between the two trials, the key informant couldn’t be found, so the trial court judge allowed his testimony from the previous trial to be read to the jury in the second case.
Hilts‘ attorney on the appeal, David Lazer, argued the Schenectady County District Attorney’s Office didn’t do enough to find the informant for the 2004 trial and even helped him get out of town.
Gerald Dwyer, representing the Schenectady County District Attorney’s Office, countered that his office made repeated calls to the informant’s family, police departments and other potential sources, all to no avail. Dwyer also said the witness had been cooperative until he didn’t show up, making periodic phone calls.
Having been exposed as a drug informant, he was also in danger had he stayed in town, Dwyer noted.
In a hearing on the issue prior to the 2004 trial and in arguments before the Appellate Division in 2007, justices both times found that the District Attorney’s Office did enough to try to find the witness.
The informant called the day Hilts was to be retried, saying he was in Washington, D.C., living on the streets. He would return, but would do so only if prosecutors wired money for the bus fare. He apparently took the money and vanished. Schenectady Police contacted Washington Police. They also contacted his mother, a friend and a shelter where he had previously stayed.
After the Appellate Division ruling, members of the local chapter of the NAACP, which had been following the case, called it a “miscarriage of justice.”
The second trial was also complicated after Hilts decided to go forward without an attorney and represent himself.
Hilts‘ attorney argued that the trial judge provided a stand-by attorney, but tied the attorney’s hands by not allowing her to volunteer information to Hilts . Hilts had to ask for it.
Dwyer responded that the judge bent over backwards to accommodate Hilts, even suggesting to him on some occasions to consult with the attorney.
The Court of Appeals also found that the record supports the finding that prosecutors did try hard enough to locate the informant. Other arguments were found to be without merit.
The conviction on the April 2003 drug transaction was the second time Hilts has been convicted in Schenectady County of a drug sale.
He had been convicted on a 1990 drug sale, but that conviction was later overturned due to questions over the credibility of a police officer’s testimony.
The District Attorney’s Office helped call in the FBI to investigate the officer, but no charges were ever filed.
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