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Affair Didn’t Taint Murder-for-Hire Trial

CHICAGO (CN) - A man serving life in prison for arranging the murder of his drug-dealing partner's wife is not entitled to a new trial, the 7th Circuit ruled.

Guy Westmoreland and Richard Abeln ran a drug-distribution operation in 1997 and 1998 that ultimately brought in at least 9 kg of cocaine and 90 pounds of marijuana.

Abeln, who used his airplane to fly the drugs from Texas to Illinois, wanted around this time to end his marriage but keep his assets. Westmoreland originally declined to help kill Debra Abeln but agreed after Abeln lied that his wife was planning to report the drug-trafficking business to law enforcement.

The pair hired a hit man named Deandre Lewis and staged a robbery-gone-bad on Dec. 27, 1997. After demanding her jewelry, Lewis shot Debra Abeln twice with a double-barreled shotgun. Her 12-year-old son witnessed the murder.

Although Westmoreland was on vacation in Florida at the time of the murder to establish an alibi, he later helped Lewis dispose of the jewelry and advised Richard Abeln on how to mislead the police.

Police saw through the cover-up, however, and arrested Westmoreland in January 1998. He was first convicted on drug-conspiracy charges and sentenced to 20 years imprisonment. Almost three years later, Westmoreland was convicted of orchestrating the murder-for-hire.

Facing a life sentence on the murder charges, Westmoreland demanded a new trial in 2002 based on the sexual affair involving the lead government investigator and Westmoreland's wife, who testified at trial. Westmoreland also sought a new trial on the basis of newly discovered evidence.

Shortly thereafter, Abeln died in his prison cell of an apparent suicide, the St. Louis Dispatch reported. A federal judge meanwhile did not rule on Westmoreland's motion for over eight years. Interim rulings declined to appoint council for Westmoreland and ignored his request for sanctions against the government.

The court finally denied the new trial motion in December 2010. A three-judge panel of the 7th Circuit affirmed Monday, refusing in addition to green-light new claims related to ineffective assistance of counsel and speedy trial.

"Though we are troubled, to say the least, by the district court's unexplained eight-year delay in ruling, Westmoreland's arguments on the merits do not warrant overturning his convictions or ordering a new trial," Judge David Hamilton wrote for the panel.

The affair between Westmoreland's wife and lead investigating agents Martin Milkovich became apparent after Westmoreland's drug conviction but before his murder conspiracy trial. As a result, Milkovich was not asked to testify during the second trial.

Although Milkovich's conduct was "certainly unusual," it was not so outrageous that it infected the entire case, the appellate panel determined.

"Westmoreland conspired to murder Mrs. Abeln without any coercion, assistance, or involvement by the government," Hamilton wrote. "The murder happened long before Milkovich met Bronnie Westmoreland. Even if we assume that the affair tainted Milkovich's investigation, the affair did not play any role in the crime itself."

The 7th Circuit also rejected Westmoreland's claims that newly discovered evidence related to the affair entitled him to a new trial.

"It is highly doubtful that the outcome of the murder trial would have been any different if the jury had heard evidence - evidence that was disputed by the government - that the affair had begun while Milkovich was still investigating the case," Hamilton wrote.

"The case against Westmoreland was very strong, and the new evidence was weak."

Even the eight-year delay in ruling on the motion for a new trial did not prejudice Westmoreland, the court determined.

"This delay was painfully excessive and, on this record, unexplained," Hamilton wrote.

But because Westmoreland was not hindered in presenting evidence and because he was already incarcerated for drug trafficking, he cannot claim that the delay itself caused him anxiety.

"Westmoreland's motion for new trial did not challenge his conviction and concurrent [20-year] sentence for the drug conspiracy," the ruling states. "Thus, while he waited for a ruling on his motion for new trial, he was not incarcerated any longer than he would have been otherwise, and we are not persuaded that any additional anxiety or worry because of the district court's delayed ruling requires that he be exonerated for the murder."

Westmoreland's ineffective assistance claims, based on his attorney's unwillingness to argue his motion for new trial, also fail.

"It is well established that a defendant's right to counsel does not give him a right to force his counsel to make every possible frivolous argument that could be made on his behalf," Hamilton wrote.

Because Westmoreland's new trial arguments were frivolous, his attorney did not act unreasonably by refusing to pursue them.

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