Pair Convicted Of Killing Drug Informant

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) - A federal jury convicted two Mingo
County residents Friday on all charges linking them to a drug
informant's 2005 murder.
The U.S. District Court jury must now decide whether to level
the death penalty against George "Porgy" Lecco and Valerie
Suzette Friend.
Two of the charges against each stemmed from the killing of
Carla Collins. The jury found that the 33-year-old Matewan resident
was shot and beaten to death by Friend on orders from Lecco in
April 2005.
Prosecutors said the pair sought to protect a cocaine ring that
Lecco ran out of a drive-thru pizza parlor in Red Jacket.
Judge John G. Copenhaver Jr. asked the jury of eight women and
four men to return Tuesday to begin the case's penalty phase.
Though West Virginia abolished capital punishment for state
crimes in 1965, it remains an option in federal cases. Three such
cases have been pursued in West Virginia in the past decade, though
each was resolved without a death sentence.
His eyes cast downward, Lecco, 57, shook his head slightly as
Copenhaver confirmed the jury's verdicts. Friend, 44, stood
motionless between her defense lawyers. They have remained jail
without bail since their mid-2005 arrests in the case.
The death penalty counts allege Collins was killed with a
firerarm during a drug crime, and both while and because she was
aiding investigators. Lecco and Friend were also convicted together
on two conspiracy counts, for their roles in the drug ring and for
helping to destroy or hide evidence of the murder.
Lecco was further found guilty on four drug and five
weapons-related charges. A 1990 felony drug conviction bars Lecco
from possessing firearms legally.
The jury had deliberated over the 13 counts for about as many
hours since Thursday, after hearing seven days of testimony.
Lecco's defense had urged jurors to reject the sometimes
conflicting statements of the case's two key witnesses:
co-defendant Patricia Burton and Carmella Blankenship, a second
alleged witness to the murder.
To avoid the death penalty, Burton pleaded guilty in December
2005 to helping Friend lure Collins to the abandoned mobile home
where she was killed. The three women and Blankenship, who
testified under an immunity agreement but was not charged in the
case, were partying with cocaine that evening.
Friend's defense lawyers also challenged the two witnesses'
credibility, and that of four other co-defendents. The four pleaded
guilty to drug and destruction of evidence conspiracy charges.
But prosecutors argued the witnesses together revealed a plot to
silence Collins. She had been suggested as an informant by Lecco,
after a February 2005 raid on his Pizza Plus. Initially cooperative
with police, Lecco targeted Collins after he resumed selling drugs,
prosecutors alleged.
In his closing arguments Wednesday, Assistant U.S. Attorney Phil
Wright cited such other evidence as audio of Lecco talking to a
visitor at the South Central Regional Jail. Wright replayed the
tape of Lecco apparently referring to efforts to hide the murder
and remarking angrily about Burton and Blankenship after learning
they were helping investigators.
"You can tell from the tone, the emotions, that these are the
words of a guilty man," Wright said.

(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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