Everything William Hargrove said in interviews with law enforcement and most, but not all, of what investigators found in searching his cellphone and laptop can be presented as evidence in his murder trial.
That ruling was issued from the bench on Thursday by Benton County Circuit Court Judge Matthew Donohue at the conclusion of a hearing to consider motions by the prosecution and the defense.
Hargrove, 29, is charged with murder and theft in the April 2017 shotgun slaying of Anna Repkina, a 27-year-old Russian woman whose body was found on a remote logging road near Alsea. He has pleaded not guilty and is scheduled to go to trial in October.
Prosecutors have painted the case as the violent outcome of a “problematic love triangle” involving Hargrove, Repkina and Michelle Chavez, a former Albany resident who was Hargrove’s married lover.
Benton County Sheriff’s detectives built their case in large part through two interviews with Hargrove — first on the porch of the Albany house he shared with Chavez and her husband, then at the Law Enforcement Center in downtown Corvallis — and evidence gathered through searches of his vehicles, residences and personal electronic devices.
In May, defense attorney Mike Flinn filed a motion challenging the validity of the search warrants used by police and seeking to suppress the evidence they seized.
In an effort to head off a similar effort to suppress Hargrove’s statements to investigators, Chief Deputy Benton County District Attorney Ryan Joslin filed a motion in June asking the judge to rule those statements admissible.
In a two-day hearing early this month, Donohue ruled that the search warrants were legitimate and that physical evidence seized from Hargrove’s vehicles, the Albany house and a Corvallis apartment he allegedly shared with Repkina could be presented to the jury at trial.
Thursday’s hearing was scheduled to wrap up testimony and oral arguments on the remaining issues from both motions.
Thomas Hill, another of Hargrove’s defense attorneys, noted that his client was not given a Miranda warning advising him of his rights to remain silent and have an attorney present until 33 minutes into his interrogation by two sheriff’s detectives.
Hill argued that his client was being held under “compelling circumstances” and was effectively under arrest the whole time, even though he wasn’t handcuffed and formally taken into custody until the end of the second interview, when the detectives informed him they were investigating Repkina’s murder and he asked for a lawyer.
“Our position is that at some point in that interrogation, the circumstances became compelling and thus Miranda was required,” he told the judge.
“We don’t believe the belated Miranda warning was sufficient.”
Joslin countered that Hargrove was not under any form of coercion until the end of the second interview, when the detectives confronted him with evidence of his possible guilt and he demanded a lawyer, ending the interrogation.
He pointed to the casual, non-threatening tone of the conversation up to that point, as well as the fact that the detectives let Hargrove go back inside his house to change clothes and allowed him to smoke and drink a soda while they talked. When they transported Hargrove to the Law Enforcement Center, he added, it was in a rental car rather than a marked patrol vehicle, and he was allowed to ride in the front seat without being frisked or handcuffed.
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“From the state’s standpoint,” Joslin said, “I don’t think you can get a much better example of non-compelling circumstances.”
In weighing the arguments, Donohue cited the conversational tone of both interviews and said Hargrove seemed to be providing information voluntarily. During the first interview, he pointed out, the detectives stayed on the porch and let Hargrove go back inside unsupervised to change his clothes.
“At that point, he had the option of simply locking the door,” the judge said.
Nevertheless, Donohue added, Hargrove chose to continue the interview and accompany the detectives to the Law Enforcement Center, where he continued to answer their questions until it became clear they considered him a suspect.
“Up to that point, I can’t find that any of the statements he made in response to those questions were not voluntary,” the judge said, finding in favor of the prosecution’s request to allow all of those statements at trial.
The arguments over the digital evidence gathered from Hargrove’s phone and computer hinged on a legal concept known as the “plain view doctrine,” which holds that law enforcement can seize evidence not specified in a search warrant as long as it is found in plain view while executing a legitimate warrant.
The warrant for Hargrove’s electronics authorized law enforcement to search for communications between Hargrove and several individuals connected with the case, including Repkina and Chavez. In court on Thursday, three sheriff’s detectives testified about the challenges of identifying who sent or received a particular phone call, text message or email, and pointed out that photos, video clips, screenshots and downloads can also be used in communications between one person and another.
The detectives also testified about some of the things they found during their searches, including a download of a Navy SEAL sniper’s manual, photos of Hargrove with Repkina, a screenshot of a web page labeled “Travel in Time Spell” and a message from Hargrove indicating he wanted to go back in time to undo something that happened on April 16, 2017, the presumed date of the murder.
Flinn argued that it’s much harder to apply the plain view doctrine in the digital realm, where there are not always clear boundaries between what is and is not covered by a search warrant.
“We are dealing with a new application of the plain view doctrine,” he said. “Letting law enforcement dig through somebody’s personal belongings from A to Z … I submit is constitutionally inappropriate.”
Senior Deputy Benton County District Attorney Amie Matusko, the lead prosecutor in the case, countered that all the files seized during the search could accurately be described as communications and therefore were fair game.
“If you are looking for communications and it directly relates to other communications and you look at those, that’s in plain view,” she said. “You don’t have to close your eyes to immediately apparent evidence of a crime.”
Donohue charted a middle course. Citing case law, he said the seizure of evidence from Hargrove’s electronics should be limited to emails, text messages, phone records and other direct communications involving the people named in the search warrant, ruling that other files seized in the searches — such as the downloaded sniper’s manual — could not be admitted in court.
“In this case the warrant only authorizes (seizing) communications between those individuals,” he said.
“Any search of anything other than the communications files themselves would not be subject to the plain view doctrine.”