A Loudoun County Circuit Court judge will rule Thursday on motions seeking to overturn the murder conviction against Braulio M. Castillo, who faces life in prison for killing his estranged wife.
During six hours of post-trial arguments today, defense attorney Peter D. Greenspun put the spotlight on the conduct of county prosecutors and the lead investigator.
Key claims include that Chief Deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney Nicole Wittmann made improper statements during her closing arguments in the case and that prosecutors failed to disclose concerns that Mark McCaffrey, the former Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office detective who led the Castillo investigation, may have filed a false report in an unrelated fatal overdose case.
Following a five-week trial ending in June, the jury recommended Castillo be sentenced to life in prison for killing his wife, Michelle Castillo, in her Ashburn home. During the trial, prosecutors claimed that Castillo jogged from his nearby home to his wife’s house, snuck inside and then strangled her in her bedroom, while their children were asleep in the home. He then took her body to a basement bathroom and made it appear that she hanged herself in the shower. The couple was in the final stages of getting a divorce. Castillo’s attorneys argued that there was no conclusive evidence that he was in the home that night or that Michelle Castillo had not committed suicide.
Final sentencing by Judge Stephen E. Sincavage was scheduled in October, but Castillo’s attorneys filed an 87-page motion seeking to set aside the verdict. Among the claims was that the circumstantial evidence in the case was insufficient for a guilty verdict and that Wittmann improperly swayed the jury by casting prejudicial aspersions on Castillo’s lawyers and making unsupported statements during closing arguments.
Greenspun focused on Wittmann’s narrative of the killing, which included Castillo hiding in a ditch outside the home until the lights went out, taking a key from the garage to enter the house, trying to suffocate Michelle in her bedroom while their youngest son was asleep on the bed, turning on the shower to cover the noise, and stopping her from reaching a shotgun locked in the closet before strangling her.
‘They are powerful arguments if they are based on facts but they are not based in facts,” he said. “They are based on the imagination of counsel.”
The motion also criticizes comments Wittmann made to the jury about Castillo’s defense team and the use of expert witnesses hired to testify in the case, comments Greenspun said undermined Castillo’s right to put on a defense and prejudiced the jury.
Greenspun characterized her comments as saying “we’re the pimps who hire the whores to provide false evidence to the jury.”
“The commonwealth didn’t care what they said as long as they got a conviction,” he said. “There is no way this conviction should stand under these circumstances.”
Wittmann refuted the claims, but also argued that it was too late for those objections to be considered. She cited Virginia case law that requires the objections to be made immediately so the judge can address them and instruct the jury when comments should be disregarded.
Today’s hearing also dealt with a second motion to overturn the conviction that was filed last month.
After the trial, Castillo’s attorneys learned of a controversy involving McCaffrey. In a fatal overdose case, the detective wrote in a report that Deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney Alex Rueda, who also prosecuted the Castillo case with Wittmann, had declined to bring criminal charges against the suspected drug supplier. Rueda later did bring felony drug charges, but after a plea agreement had been entered in which the suspect could not be charged beyond the DWI offense for which he was originally arrested. Rueda made note on McCaffrey’s report that his statement that she did not support charges was “misleading” and during the court case she disputed McCaffrey’s account. Ultimately, the case was dropped.
As late as last week, prosecutors were working to clear up the discrepancy, issuing a letter stating that McCaffrey stood by his report that the issue was discussed, but Rueda stating she did not recollect the meeting.
Greenspun said the concern about McCaffrey’s report should have been shared with the defense team under standard pre-trial discovery disclosures. Early in the case, the attorneys held a special motion session to determine whether the jury would be told that McCaffrey was not re-sworn by Sheriff Michael Chapman following his re-election in 2015. That put the Castillo case’s lead investigator out of a job.
McCaffrey, who had not supported Chapman’s re-election bid, then was hired by the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office and prosecutors argued that it would be prejudicial for jurors to be led to believe he had been fired from the Sheriff’s Office. They provided the defense with personal records that showed McCaffrey had not been subject to internal investigations or discipline and a statement from Chapman that his release was not performance-related. At that time, the defense attorneys agreed not to raise McCaffrey’s job status before the jury.
That position would have been different if they had known McCaffrey may have filed a false report as part of another death investigation, Greenspun said. The detective was involved in almost every aspect of the case, and the attorney said, questions about his credibility should have been known to jurors.
“Without a credible Mark McCaffrey there is no case,” he said.
Wittmann characterized the disputed report as more of a misunderstanding than a falsification. McCaffrey and Rueda simply had differing recollections of the information, she said, adding that the circumstances did not amount to anything requiring disclosure to the defense.
In this second motion, Greenspun asked Sincavage not only to set aside the murder conviction, but also to bar Rueda and Wittmann from serving as prosecutors if a new trial was pursued.
Sincavage said he would rule on the motions at 1 p.m. Thursday.