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Byers' Beat: Upward battle ahead for those seeking to prove criminal misconduct in Pam Hupp case

Lincoln County Prosecutor Mike Wood has vowed to hold police and prosecutors accountable, but how difficult will that be?

LINCOLN COUNTY, Mo. — Lincoln County Prosecutor Mike Wood vowed earlier this week to not only get justice for Betsy Faria, but justice for the justice system.

Russ Faria’s conviction for his wife’s murder was overturned due to what Wood characterized as the worst case of confirmation bias he’s ever seen in his career on the part of police and prosecutors.

He made the comments while announcing charges against Pam Hupp for Betsy Faria’s 2011 murder, saying he plans to investigate whether misconduct on the part of police and prosecutors led to an innocent man being sent to prison for his wife’s murder.

“This was the poorest example of investigative work I or members of my team have ever seen,” Wood said during a press conference Monday announcing murder charges against Hupp. “It was driven by ego and a prosecutor who was working toward an agenda rather than the truth.”

He said three witnesses in the case told him they were told to lie about what they knew.

But he didn’t say by whom.

The twists and turns in this case have been the subject of a Dateline episode and podcast along with numerous news reports.

Wood was careful not to name names of those who his office will be investigating.

But, he did say his investigation has so far confirmed the claims made within Russ Faria’s civil lawsuit – for which he won a $2 million settlement.

That lawsuit names names.

In it, Russ Faria accused Wood’s predecessor and political foe former Lincoln County Prosecutor Leah Wommack Askey, now Leah Wommack Chaney, and former Lincoln County Sheriff’s deputies Ryan McCarrick, Detective Sergeant Patrick Harney and Capt. Mike Merkel of ignoring critical evidence that could prove his innocence.

Chaney has denied any wrongdoing.

Wood pledged to reveal the results of the investigation by the end of this year.

"As prosecutors, we follow where the facts go," Wood said in an interview with me Friday. "I think the community deserves an explanation as to how this all fell apart. We want to show how it went wrong and establish how we can do better in the future and not allow this to happen again. There was a lot of failure across the board."

It’s going to be an investigation that mirrors the murder investigation in terms of twists and turns.

First, Wood will have to prove the police and prosecutors were not acting in good faith when they made the decisions they made during the murder investigation.

If he can meet the bar and prove there was malicious intent on the part of the prosecutors and police involved in the investigation, he likely won’t be the one to prosecute those cases.

Defense attorneys would have a lot of reasons to get Wood removed from the case.

First, he and Chaney are political opponents.

And, Wood ran for office, pledging to re-open the Pam Hupp investigation.

It reminds me of the reason why St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner got dismissed from the McCloskey case.

In that case, defense attorney Joel Schwartz – ironically also Russ Faria’s attorney – successfully argued Gardner’s reference to hold the McCloskeys accountable in campaign fundraising emails was grounds for dismissal.

Ultimately, the courts agreed with him and a special prosecutor was appointed.

Wood’s pledge to re-open the investigation wasn’t as direct as Gardner’s pledge to hold the McCloskeys accountable – so it’s likely the political rivalry between Chaney and Wood would be the strongest reason to get the case reassigned.

But Wood tells me he's not interested in "going down a protracted legal battle involving disqualification."

So, should he find criminal wrongdoing, he said he plans to recuse himself from the prosecution. 

"I take seriously any conflict of interest there might be there," he said. "I expect I would conflict myself out. 

"I don’t like the way that feels because Leah was my political opponent," he said. "I don’t want any accusations of politics being involved.

"There could be a chance she has done absolutely nothing wrong in that some of what we found was on the law enforcement side," he said. "We’re just trying to figure out if something criminal occurred."

He added there were multiple prosecutors on the case, not just Chaney, and none of the police officers his office is investigating still work in his county.

Wood also kept the type of criminal charges he believes could apply close to the vest during the press conference and during our interview Friday.

But, he did say there is no statute of limitations on perjury.

"I'm not saying criminal prosecution will occur, but if it’s there, we want people to know they don’t get to lie on the stand and manufacture evidence," he said. "Those are some of the things that have been brought to my attention recently.

"We will publish our findings one way or another so people can have some faith we saw it through."

It will no doubt be an interesting read -- one filled with more twists and turns.

Updated at 1:57 p.m. with response from Lincoln County Prosecutor Mike Wood

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