Supreme Court rejects appeal on murder case - WOWK 13 Charleston, Huntington WV News, Weather, Sports

Supreme Court rejects appeal on murder case

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A Nicholas County vegetable farmer convicted in 2012 of murdering his wife for her $500,000 life insurance policy couldn’t convince the state supreme court that there’d been a mistake.

Gary Lee Rollins was convicted nearly two years ago of first degree murder with no recommendation of mercy in the October 2009 death of his wife, Teresa.

Rollins said he found his wife’s body in a pond, pinned under the branches of a large tree, telling authorities he jumped in the water to try to pull her free but the tree was too big and the branches too heavy. He said he returned to his house, told their hired helpers to call police and then used his tractor to move the tree. Her death was initially listed as accidental due to “drowning complicated compression asphyxia.”

He said the investigation was reopened after his late wife’s family called then-Gov. Joe Manchin claiming she’d been murdered. The West Virginia State Police, discovering inconsistencies they said suggested Teresa Rollins’ death was not an accident. Among them:

n Investigators determined Rollins had taken out two life insurance policies within two months of his wife’s death — including one he purchased when he and his girlfriend, the worker who called police the day her body was discovered, picked out a $44,000 truck in August 2009. The salesmen told police Rollins had financed the majority of the purchase price but said “he’d be paying it off pretty soon,” though he selected a 60-month contract. He purchased life insurance for both himself and his wife that would cover the price of the truck.

Rollins also attempted to boost his wife’s life insurance coverage by $300,000 for both natural and accidental death causes, but reconsidered the natural death policy boost because it would have required a physical. That agent said Rollins told him he was just looking for accidental death coverage because “neither one of us is planning ... a natural death,” and their existing policy would “barely pay off our mortgage.”

n Witnesses also said when Rollins called for someone to call an ambulance, he didn’t say why. Yet April Bailes, the worker who called 911, told the dispatcher Mrs. Rollins was trapped under a tree in the pond and wasn’t breathing. “The State Police theorized that because Ms. Bailes could not see the scene at the pond with the detail she described to the 911 operator, she must have known that Ms. Rollins was dead in the pond prior to placing the call,” court records noted.

Bailes ultimately was charged with being an accessory to murder and testified in court that Gary Rollins, with whom she had begun an affair more than a year before Teresa Rollins’ death, had pulled her aside earlier in the day to confess he’d killed his wife and told her she would be the one to call police and tell them his wife’s body was under a tree.

Rollins also had claimed he jumped in the pond to try to save his wife, but based on witness statements “the state police did not believe that Mr. Rollins was wet enough to support his claim that he had jumped into the pond and attempted to pull his wife’s body from beneath the tree.”

After reviewing the new information, medical examiners amended her death certificate to cite asphyxia due to probable strangulation as the cause of death. At trial, a friend of the victim testified Teresa Rollins had been physically abused in the months preceding her death and had taken pictures of her injuries.

The jury deliberated less than two hours before returning the guilty verdict.

Rollins’ legal team, however, argued that his wife’s death was an accident and that Manchin’s influence had caused police and medical examiners to wrongfully accuse him of murder.

On appeal, his lawyers cited seven alleged errors by the court, including prejudicial comments by the prosecutor during closing, evidence of domestic abuse was improperly admitted and that they had been unfairly surprised by a medical examiner’s change of opinion as to cause of death.

The prosecutor, in rebutting Rollins’ claim that Bailes had fabricated the conversation to avoid prosecution, had told the jury in closing that, “we knew from the very beginning, from that 911 call” that Bailes knew Rollins had killed his wife and that she would be indicted.

Rollins’s lawyers contend the prosecutor “improperly bolstered Ms. Bailes’s credibility” when he promised that she would be indicted. However, because no objection was raised at trial the Supreme Court said in the per curiam decision it can’t be raised on appeal, and also found that the defense itself had “invited” the prosecutor’s comments by raising questions about Bailes having made a deal to avoid prosecution.

Likewise, the justices said the trial court did not err in allowing evidence of domestic abuse to be introduced, pointing out that, “Even had we found any error with regard to this evidence, the outcome of this case would not have been affected by the inclusion of the evidence because of the unchallenged evidence presented against Mr. Rollins at trial” including Bailes’s testimony that Rollins admitted to killing his wife, his recorded statement to police, evidence of the increased life insurance policies and the testimony of the state’s medical expert witnesses, each of whom testified Teresa Rollins’s injuries were not consistent with a tree falling on her.

“Had the State never presented the domestic violence evidence, we do not believe that the jury’s verdict would have been different,” the court noted.

In rejecting the appeal, the court noted that “Mr. Rollins argues that the cumulative effect of the errors committed by the circuit court in this case warrants reversal of his conviction. Upon our review of this case, we did not find error, and so there is no basis for reversal pursuant to this assignment of error.”

Concurring opinions were authored by Justices Margaret Workman, Allen Loughry and Menis Ketchum, though Loughry and Ketchum suggested the majority’s legal analysis pertaining to the domestic violence evidence was confusing.

“The majority has correctly determined that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in admitting the (domestic violence evidence) offered by the state against,” Loughry wrote. “I write separately to emphasize that prior bad acts evidence may be admissible to show absence of mistake or accident where a defendant raises a defense theory of accident unrelated to his or her own conduct or actions.”

He said Rollins’s defense “went well beyond simply claiming that he did not kill his wife to one of accidental death caused by a tree,” therefore the evidence pertaining to prior bad acts — domestic abuse — was admissable.”