A private inquiry into the truthfulness of an FBI informant and dueling accusations of attorney misconduct amid that probe have fueled delays in the prosecution of a retired military officer charged in a murder-for-hire plot.
Lawrence Lee, 63, of Folly Beach, who flew fighter jets as an Air Force lieutenant colonel and flipped houses for resale during retirement, was first accused in April 2014 of asking a carpenter he employed to find someone to kill his former wife, to whom he owed alimony.
But as the scheme took shape, the worker informed authorities of it and started recording his conversations with Lee for the FBI. Lee was arrested soon after agents said the informant filmed him handing over $5,000 as a first installment for the planned killing.
On top of the questions surrounding the supposed middle man, pre-trial court proceedings have analyzed Lee’s competency to stand trial on a charge of using an interstate commerce facility in murder for hire, a felony that carries up to 10 years in prison.
Cameron Blazer, Lee’s defense attorney, said the evaluation had nothing to do with her client’s mental state at the time of the alleged crimes. Lee was deemed fit to stand trial, but Blazer said another look at his competency would likely happen closer to the proceeding. That won’t be until next year.
“As of the most recent hearing on that matter, he was deemed to be competent,” Blazer said. “But there are other serious legal issues in this case.”
The issues that have pitted Blazer against Assistant U.S. Attorney Nathan Williams, the lead prosecutor, in recent court filings are linked to Todd Scott, who revealed his role as the confidential informant during interviews with The Post and Courier.
Soon after Lee’s arrest, private investigators working on his defense visited Scott on James Island, hoping to find out “the truth” and determine whether the facts help or hurt their case, they told Scott. A transcript of investigators Ed and Laurie Langford’s brief conversation with Scott last year was filed in federal court.
After Scott made a phone call to Williams’ office and told the Langfords that he couldn’t talk because the case was still pending, the investigators told Scott that prosecutors were “not supposed to direct a witness” and cannot “own” a witness. But they heeded Scott’s decision and left.
Williams’ reaction after the encounter is the focus of the dispute between the opposing attorneys.
Blazer said in court documents that the prosecutor called the Savage Law Firm, where she works, and made accusations of “witness tampering,” alleging that the investigators had threatened Scott and his wife.
In follow-up emails, Williams said the investigators’ comments about looking for the truth implied that Scott had not been truthful. Other comments could have misled Scott into thinking he was required to talk, the prosecutor added.
Williams described their actions as a bid to sway Scott’s testimony that could be punished as a crime.
But to Blazer, Williams’ accusations were based on “misrepresentations and half-truths,” her filings stated.
“The improper and outrageous threats of prosecution by Williams had an immediate chilling effect on the (private) investigation and have had a prejudicial effect on Lee’s legal defense,” Blazer said in the paperwork.
Blazer filed the papers in hopes of revealing further documentation of Williams’ handling of the encounter.
In his response, the prosecutor said his reaction was reasonable because Scott was concerned for his family’s safety. Scott “fully understood that (Lee) was so desperate he was willing to murder to achieve his objectives,” Williams wrote.
Williams declined to further comment on the disagreement.
Earlier this week, U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel ordered Williams to turn over some documents to Blazer, and he set the case for jury selection Jan. 12.
Blazer had requested a hearing to explore what witnesses, including prosecutors, might help impeach the informant’s credibility. She called the issue a “novel” one. Prosecutors and defense lawyers who are witnesses in cases are typically barred from also working on those cases.
Since Lee’s arrest, the informant said he has struggled to find employment and a stable home for his family of four. Scott recently found a job, he said. But delays in the trial have kept his family from moving back to their hometown area of Philadelphia.
“I just want this over,” he said. “I can’t move on with my life until it’s over.”
Reach Andrew Knapp at 843-937-5414 or twitter.com/offlede.