The criminal case in the death of toddler Colton Turner is cleared for trial this summer after a judge in Travis County declined Thursday to suppress statements the boy’s mother made to police about his 2014 disappearance.
State District Judge David Wahlberg criticized what he characterized as deceptive investigative tactics employed by Cedar Park police before ruling that statements made to them by Turner’s mother, Meagan Work, were in fact voluntary.
The decision came as a bit of a surprise after Wahlberg hinted at a hearing in January he would side with Work, who he thought should been taken to a magistrate judge on a misdemeanor charge of lying to police long before she gave statements that prosecutors want to use against her in her trial.
But Wahlberg announced Thursday that he was bound to a previous ruling from the 3rd Court of Appeals, which had reversed his 2015 decision to suppress other statements Work made in which she described helping her boyfriend bury the child’s body in a shallow grave in South Austin.
“Despite my misgivings of the way police handled this, Ms. Work was advised of her rights,” he said.
His decision means prosecutors will be able to pull from all of Work’s statements — taken over more than 50 hours of police questioning and to four law enforcement agencies — when they present the case to a jury on Aug. 20. Work, who turns 24 next week, has pleaded not guilty to felony charges of tampering with physical evidence and injury to a child. Her boyfriend, Michael Turner, is serving 20 years in prison after pleading guilty in 2016 to injury to a child by reckless omission.
Had Wahlberg ruled in favor of Work, it likely would have resulted in another delay as prosecutors would have appealed to a higher court just as they did in 2015 when Wahlberg had ruled Work was arrested unlawfully. That decision was reversed in December 2016 when the 3rd Court of Appeals concluded Work’s arrest was legal because she had lied to investigators when she said her son was with a friend out of town. The Court of Criminal Appeals upheld the 3rd Court’s ruling in September 2017.
Outside the courtroom Thursday, defense lawyer Ariel Payan said police “tortured” Work into providing information.
“She was deliberately, purposefully, intentionally held in a room by law enforcement so that they could question her over and over and over again until they got what they wanted,” he said. “The law says you can’t do that. The law in Texas adds a little condition where you have to determine if those statements were voluntary.”
He argued to the court that police had a legal obligation to take Work before a magistrate judge within a reasonable amount of time — no more than 48 hours — when it became apparent she had committed the misdemeanor offense of lying to the police. Work would have been released from jail on a personal bond and no longer would have been in the custody of investigators.
Wahlberg called it a “complete violation” of Work’s rights and cited a “causal connection” between the delay and Work’s statements. Work, who was pregnant at the time, was vomiting and had little to eat or drink.
Wahlberg has consistently expressed concern about the credibility of the investigation, noting in January that Work was interviewed by Cedar Park police Detective Chris Dailey, who has been criticized by the Texas Rangers for not looking into other potential suspects in the Greg Kelley sexual assault case.
Kelley, who was sentenced to 25 years in prison, has been released on bond while he seeks to have his conviction overturned by the Court of Criminal Appeals. Two other potential suspects identified by the Rangers were never vetted by Cedar Park police in the Kelley case.
Payan argued that police gave a misleading answer to a question from Work about getting an attorney, telling her it was up to her to get one.
But prosecutor Victoria Winkeler said she viewed the exchange differently, noting that the investigator responded “right” to a question from Work about if she was entitled to a court-appointed attorney.
“I do not believe that indicates he misstated the law,” Winkeler said.
Winkeler added that Work had free will and that her statements were not a confession, but “purposeful, deceitful, statements that are self-serving lies that she gave to throw off investigators who were trying to locate the child she knew had been buried two months prior.”