Murder plot trial: Ex-guards guilty
Two Klan-affiliated former prison guards accused of plotting to kill a black former inmate in 2015 have been found guilty of conspiracy to commit murder.
David Elliot Moran, 49, of Lake Butler, and Charles Thomas Newcomb, 45, of Keystone Heights, face up to life in prison after their joint trial concluded in the Columbia County Courthouse on Friday.
Newcomb, Moran and Thomas Jordan Driver of Lake City, who pleaded guilty in April, were members of the Traditionalist Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, according to an arrest affidavit.
Moran and Driver worked at the Florida Department of Corrections Reception and Medical Center in Lake Butler. Newcomb was a former corrections trainee who was dismissed during his probation period.
In 2015, Moran and Newcomb enlisted the help of Joe Moore, an FBI source posing as a Klan hitman, to kill the inmate, who bit Driver during a prison fight, according to the affidavit.
The conspirators believed the inmate to have a blood disease, the affidavit states.
The jury on Friday deliberated for about two and a half hours after the prosecution and defense made their closing statements, with the state’s case centering on recordings of meetings between Moore, Moran and Newcomb on Jan. 30, 2015 and March 18-19, 2015.
Moore faked a photograph of the corpse and showed it to Newcomb on March 18, 2015.
Assistant Statewide Prosecutor Cass Castillo gave the state’s closing remarks on Friday.
Moran and Newcomb’s defense attorneys claimed they were entrapped by Moore, but Castillo said recordings of the meetings indicate otherwise.
When Moore asked Moran and Newcomb why they approached him, they answered that they wanted to put the former inmate, whose last name is Williams, “six feet under,” Castillo said.
Moran and Newcomb had already made up their mind to kill Williams, the only undetermined detail was what method to use, Castillo said.
They deferred to Moore’s perceived expertise to answer that question, Castillo said.
“This isn’t Mr. Moore trying to push this issue,” Castillo said.
When the trio met on Jan. 30, Moore indicated they were riding to Palatka to conduct surveillance, Castillo said.
But Newcomb was ready to carry through with the plot, Castillo said, having brought three masks to protect against Williams’ blood disease should they have to use a firearm.
Newcomb also brought two syringes filled with insulin and extra bottles of the drug, suggesting they inject Williams to trigger an overdose, Castillo said.
“His plan has a real, real way of working,” Castillo said.
Moran, who arrived to the meeting late, suggested they “see if the chance presents itself,” Castillo said.
Favoring a “complete disposal” of the body, Moran’s only hesitation was whether it was the right time of day to kill Williams, Castillo said.
“He’s fully on board with it,” Castillo said.
When Moore showed Moran and Newcomb the photo of the fake corpse in March 2015, the FBI wanted to test whether Moran and Newcomb were serious about killing Williams, Castillo said, or whether they were just “puffing and talking.”
Castillo referred to audio recordings of Moran and Newcomb reacting to the faked corpse photo, which the state played for the jury Tuesday.
Newcomb chuckled when Moore showed him the photo on March 18, 2015.
“Now I wanted to make sure that this is — that y’all are happy with this and this is what y’all wanted,” Moore said.
“Oh, yeah,” Newcomb said.
Moran let out an even more gleeful laugh when presented with the photo the next day.
“Is this what y’all wanted?” Moore asked.
“Yeah! Hell, yeah,” Moran said.
Moran’s reaction was telling, Castillo said during closing statements Friday.
“He could not have expressed himself in a more joyous way,” Castillo said. “... Listen to the inflection of his voice. He is very, very pleased at what has taken place.”
The defense’s closing arguments centered on questioning Moore’s reliability as a witness.
Moran’s defense attorney, Robert A. Rush, dismissed the investigation into Moran and Newcomb, saying it was a politically motivated action carried out by “unproductive” FBI agents from the Obama administration to entrap American citizens due to their political views.
Rush said Moran and Newcomb were engaging in “trash talk” when they spoke about killing Williams, adding that the recordings are subject to multiple interpretations.
“There is nothing clear and convincing on those tapes,” Rush said.
Rush also suggested Moran and Newcomb thought the plot was a loyalty test formulated by the Klan.
Moore, who acted as a security officer to the head of the Klan in Florida, presented himself as a skilled killer, Rush said, adding it would be unreasonable to expect Moran to have anything but a positive reaction when faced with the faked photo of the corpse.
Moore showed Moran the faked photo of the corpse on a “little, tiny cell phone that’s hard to see,” and Moran found himself in a “scary situation,” Rush said.
Rush questioned why the state didn’t have Moore’s handler, Lindsay Campbell, testify in the trial.
“Because what she would say would not support the state’s case,” Rush said.
Instead, the state went with Moore as its star witness, Rush said.
Moore has been committed to psychiatric institutions on multiple occasions and lied several times throughout the investigation and trial, Rush said.
“He is not worthy of your belief,” Rush told the jury.
Moran was not predisposed to murder Williams, Rush said, claiming Moore pressured the defendants to participate in the plot.
“The FBI tried hard to entrap people into this crime,” Rush said.
By the Jan. 30 meeting between Moore and the defendants, no agreement had been made to kill Williams, Rush said.
“They were still just talking,” Rush said.
The defendants still didn’t contact each other after seeing the photo, Rush said.
“Why weren’t they together, slapping high fives?” Rush asked.
Newcomb’s defense attorney, Clifton William Wilson Jr., said the entire murder conspiracy was a “fictional story” crated by Moore, who has “pretty serious mental health issues” and is a “habitual liar.”
“It’s clear Joe Moore is driving this bus,” Wilson said.
Wilson focused on Moore’s history, alleging he falsely accused a woman of a sexual offense, lied about being in an elite military unit and was previously terminated as a source for bragging about working in the FBI.
“The FBI made this case, they were the law enforcement agency responsible for enabling Joe Moore to create this fiction,” Wilson said.
Wilson accused the state of picking out “snippets” from the transcripts of the recordings.
Newcomb blew Moore off for several days when they discussed killing Williams, Wilson said.
Newcomb looked for ways to postpone the plan when the trio went to Palatka, Wilson said, pointing out there were too many “eyes” present.
Newcomb didn’t contact Moore about the plot between the Jan. 30 meeting and the March 18 meeting, Wilson said, meaning there was an “implied renunciation.”
“How can you agree to kill anybody if you don’t intend to do it?” Wilson asked. “There’s a lot of smoke and no fire in this case.”
Newcomb’s reaction to the faked photo of the corpse didn’t sound joyful, Wilson said.
“It sounded like a man who was shocked at what he was seeing,” Wilson said.
Rebutting the defense’s closing statements, Chief Assistant Statewide Prosecutor Kelsey A. Bledsoe said the state’s case was well-documented and verified.
The state doesn’t take Moore’s mental health issues lightly, Bledsoe said, but the defense was turning the issue into a “sideshow.”
FBI Special Agent Joseph Armstrong testified he would use Moore as a source again, Bledsoe said.
There was a communication gap between the meetings on Jan. 30 and March 18 because the FBI asked Moore to temporarily back off, Bledsoe said.
There’s no evidence to suggest Moran, who talked about chopping the body up, backed off from the plan at any point, Bledsoe said.
Similarly, Newcomb “upped the ante” during the Jan. 30 meeting by bringing the insulin and masks, Bledsoe said.
“That is not dialing it back,” Bledsoe said.