While serving a sentence in state prison, Toby Priest heard about a lot of inmates trying to appeal convictions based on their legal representation, but knew of few who managed to actually do it.
Priest was in prison because he turned down plea deals in hopes of clearing his name after being charged with a 2007 gas station robbery. While Priest acknowledges the run-ins with the law he’s had before and since, he maintains to this day he didn’t commit that robbery.
“They said I could walk out of that jail on five years’ probation and go home, but why would you plead guilty to something you didn’t do?” Priest told Lagniappe. “How can they prove that I’m guilty when I wasn’t even there? I couldn’t even fathom that could happen in our legal system.”
If you believe Priest is innocent, though, that’s exactly what did happen. After his trial, he was convicted and sentenced to 20 years in an Alabama prison. Nearly four years into the sentence, Priest had made at least one prior attempt to appeal his conviction.
Eventually, with the help of his family’s own investigative work, he rolled the dice and filed what’s known as a Rule 32 petition in hopes of getting a new trial based on the performance his original attorney gave during his 2008 robbery trial.
His court-appointed attorney in that trial was Brandy Hambright, who is currently seeking the GOP nomination for Mobile County Circuit Court, Place 6. Priest’s attempt to question Hambright’s dedication in that trial was ultimately successful, and his conviction was overturned in 2011.
In a retrial of the same case, a key witness who identified Priest as the robber in the 2008 trial said he could not do so again confidently in 2011. As a result, the state moved to drop all charges.
Former Circuit Judge Charles Graddick found Hambright “failed in her constitutional duty” to represent Priest in 2008 by not interviewing or subpoenaing an eyewitness whose testimony likely would have changed the outcome of his trial. The witness was Laura Stewart-Wyatt.
Priest was accused of robbing a gas station on Old Shell Road in April 2007.
Partial fingerprints and blood samples, though limited, weren’t a match for Priest’s, so the state’s case focused heavily the robbery’s eyewitnesses — a clerk named Tirupathi Mangalarapu, who spoke limited English, and Wyatt, who was in the store buying a drink.
Mangalarapu identified Priest among several photographs investigators showed him the day of the robbery, even though some of the initial descriptions he gave of the suspect didn’t match Priest’s height, weight or hair color at the time.
Wyatt has always maintained the robber wasn’t Priest, but she moved to Wyoming shortly after the robbery and wasn’t at Priest’s 2008 trial. Mangalarapu was, and in his ruling overturning Priest’s conviction, Graddick acknowledged that Mangalarapu’s testimony was likely instrumental in convincing the jury Priest was guilty.
He saw the absence of Wyatt’s testimony as impactful, especially given that Hambright had been provided her name, address and phone number before the trial. In his 2011 ruling, Graddick wrote that, “but for [Hambright’s] errors, the result would have been different.”
“[Hambright], who was present at the hearing and heard the direct testimony of Wyatt, admitted her ineffectiveness by her failure to interview and subpoena Wyatt in the defense of [Priest],” Graddick continued. “[Hambright] testified that in her judgment, had she interviewed and subpoenaed Wyatt to the trial, [Priest] would not have been convicted.”
While she declined to be interviewed in 2011, Hambright recently discussed the outcome of Priest’s 2008 trial with Lagniappe. She said she didn’t subpoena Wyatt because she expected the state to do so, which would have made her available at trial for cross examination by the defense.
Hamright said she prepared for cross examination but found on “the eve of the trial” Wyatt wasn’t going to appear. During the trial, Hambright submitted the statement Wyatt gave to detectives on the day of the robbery into evidence, as opposed to forcing her to travel from Wyoming on short notice.
Hambright said she believed at the time that Wyatt had “nothing further to add.”
“[The detective] testified to the description given by Ms. Wyatt immediately following the robbery, which was, in its entirety, contradictory to Mr. Priest’s features,” she said. “I considered Ms. Wyatt’s description as one of several points of reasonable doubt for the jury to consider.”
Hambright said she agreed with Graddick, though, adding “a failure to admit error, when the error and prejudice are or become apparent, is to deny an accused his or her rights.” She said the state’s decision to ultimately dismiss the case against Priest reinforced the decision as well.
As for her role, Hambright said she was “forthright in [her] error” because she recognizes the role attorneys and prosecutors play in ensuring defendants are given a fair trial.
“As Americans, we enjoy constitutional rights, of which the judicial branch is the ultimate protector,” she wrote. “Should it become apparent that any level of the judicial process has been compromised, it is an attorney and/or judge’s sworn oath to admit error and restore those constitutional rights to the accused.”
Some of Priest’s family members have also questioned why some of the statements Hambright and Wyatt made during the Rule 32 hearings in 2011 appear to be at odds with one another.
In a submitted affidavit, Hambright claimed she “spoke with [Wyatt] prior to trial” in 2008, but on the stand, Wyatt testified she had not even heard Hambright’s name until she was contacted by Priest’s family about the Rule 32 proceedings.
Asked about the juxtaposition, Hambright said she couldn’t recall specific details about how her office communicated with witnesses ahead of the trial because it happened 10 years ago.
“It is possible Ms. Wyatt was contacted by another person in my office, working under my guidance. It is also possible I reached out to Ms. Wyatt personally,” she wrote. “What I know and clearly remember is that I did not contact Ms. Wyatt after becoming aware that she would not be present at trial, but rather decided to rely on her written statement given to the police at the time of the robbery.”
Most would assume a man who spent more than three years in jail because of “ineffective counsel” would harbor a grudge against said counsel. Yet, Priest doesn’t seem to. He said he doesn’t have any “bitterness” toward Hambright but couldn’t say the same for Mobile County District Attorney Ashley Rich or the lead prosecutor at both of his trials, Assistant District Attorney Jennifer Wright.
Priest said he didn’t question Hambright’s representation until after his conviction, adding that she was “professional” throughout all of his original trial. However, he did say he believes the public would want to know about his experience as her client.
“When I see Brandy’s ads, it makes her sound like a real crusader for justice,” he said. “They’re saying she has got 18 years of experience, but my [Rule 32] case was in 2010, and it didn’t seem to me like she was very experienced at all at that point.”