A year ago, revelations about former Vinton Det. Craig Roger Frye threatened to undermine 55 closed federal prosecutions involving nearly 40 defendants in prison.
The disclosures launched an extraordinary reassessment of cases Frye touched while working as a federal task force agent. Defense attorneys went to work looking for legal justification for inmates to be released and cases retried.
Justifications have proven few, however. And last week, the only defendant freed over official distrust in Frye was jailed on new felony drug and gun charges. The Albemarle-Charlottesville Regional Jail was holding Demarcus Mandell Brown, 43, of Charlottesville on Friday, according to online information.
Only a small fraction of the other defendants alerted to official concern about Frye have attempted legal challenges.
“Unfortunately, we don’t have a legal basis to file for the vast majority of the clients,” Juval Scott, the federal public defender for the western district of Virginia, said in an email.
Federal prosecutors said last year that Vinton police had provided years of records showing a history of “misconduct” by Frye during his police career. Prosecutors concluded that Frye could no longer assist in federal prosecutions.
A federal task force dismissed Frye. An award-winning officer, Frye left Vinton police after active service of about 13 years.
The records, retrieved from Frye’s personnel file, were unsealed by a judge at the request of The Roanoke Times. They described clashes with colleagues, reprimands and what federal prosecutors described as a lack of candor about his past.
Prosecutors said the disclosures revealed for the first time to them that Frye had issues with honesty and bias.
Defendants are entitled to use negative information about the police to fight prosecution, but the Frye material had not been disclosed and prosecutors said they were unaware of it until spring 2017.
In May 2018, prosecutors named 55 closed cases involving 76 defendants filed between 2005 and 2016 that they said needed a fresh look. At the time, at least 38 of the defendants were in prison.
A judge authorized prosecutors to give the Frye files to the Office of the Federal Public Defender for the Western District of Virginia.
At least seven of the defendants have returned to court in the past year to challenge their convictions or sentences or both. All are pending.
A few more challenges could still be filed, but further action is unlikely in most of the cases reviewed. Some defendants have already served their time and supervised release. Others had already filed and lost a legal challenge before the revelations about Frye came to light, and defense attorneys didn’t believe they could meet the requirements to file a second one.
In still other cases, Frye played too small a part to base a challenge on the revelations.
U.S. Attorney Thomas Cullen said in an April interview that he was not surprised by the scarcity of Frye-based legal challenges, as most of the defendants pleaded guilty in the face of overwhelming evidence of guilt.
Events that led to Brown’s release unfolded in the second half of 2017. He was serving a 285-month sentence after pleading guilty to cocaine and gun violations in 2013.
A judge ruled that Brown had received ineffective legal assistance at the time of his plea, which was nullified. Brown was given the option to request a trial on the charges.
Federal prosecutors announced in September 2017 that they would not retry him. An assistant prosecutor cited concerns about the reliability of a police officer who had helped develop the case against Brown.
It was only months later, when Frye’s exclusion as a federal witness was made public, that court files disclosed that he was the officer whose conduct had thwarted Brown’s retrial.
At Brown’s final hearing before was released, a judge told him: “You’ve been given a chance here to reset your life.”
In announcing Brown’s arrest on Monday, Virginia State Police said he had in his possession 308 grams of cocaine, with an estimated street value of $13,750. In his vehicle, officers found 171 grams of marijuana with an estimated worth of $2,187 and two semi-automatic handguns.
The evidence that officers collected against Brown and a second defendant also included $55,000 in cash, state police spokeswoman Corinne Geller said. Brown is due in court Aug. 8.