'Stink-bomb': Explosive allegations threaten $10-million award, career

The jury was so moved by 25-year-old Jessica Lester's 2007 death under the weight of an out-of-control Allied Concrete mixer that it awarded a record $10.6 million, the bulk of which to go to her grieving husband.

Now, seven months after the December trial, allegations that a respected personal injury lawyer lied, withheld evidence, and failed to disclose a family connection to the jury foreperson threaten to overturn the award– and a career.

Lawyers for Allied Concrete and its driver, William Sprouse, detail in a court filing how plaintiff's attorney Matt Murray allegedly instructed Jessica's husband, Isaiah Lester, to remove photos of himself partying, à la Casey Anthony, from Facebook and withhold them from a defense discovery request.

The defense also asserts that Murray ordered a paralegal to withhold the "stink-bomb" email that instructed Lester to get rid of the pictures, and when she refused to do so, Murray withheld it himself, then later called the omission an oversight by another paralegal.

One day after the July 5 defense arguments were filed, Murray resigned as managing partner for Allen, Allen, Allen & Allen, the largest personal injury firm in Virginia, which had recruited him to open its Charlottesville office in 2008. Murray also resigned from the Virginia Trial Lawyers Association, of which he was a recent president.

"I retired from practicing law," says Murray, who also was a former president of the Charlottesville-Albemarle Bar Association.

He had previously stepped aside as Lester's attorney. "I withdrew five months ago when these allegations were made," says Murray, who declined to comment on the allegations but added, "We're in litigation." His attorney, Tom Williamson, did not return a phone call from the Hook.

On June 21, 2007, Jessica Lester was driving to work in a Honda Accord with her husband on curvy Route 53, the same road William Sprouse had chosen to haul 36,000 pounds of cement to a bridge job in Palmyra.

Near the entrance to Monticello, Sprouse was speeding around a curve when he lost control of the cement mixer, which rolled over and crushed the Honda, witnesses testified at the trial. Jessica Lester died eight days later with what her neurosurgeon described as the worst skull fracture he'd ever seen.

Sprouse pleaded guilty to manslaughter and received a two-year sentence, with all but 30 days suspended.

The Facebook photo taken one year after Jessica's death showed widower Isaiah Lester holding a can of beer and wearing a t-shirt that read "I [heart] hot moms" with a garter around his head, according to court filings. When Allied attorneys asked for a copy of the photo on March 25, 2009, Murray allegedly told Lester that the easiest way to handle the request would be to take down his Facebook page.

The next day, according to the defense, Allen & Allen paralegal Marlina Smith emailed Lester, "There are some other pictures that should be deleted," and subsequently wrote, "We do NOT want blow ups of other pics at trial, so please, please, please clean up your Facebook and myspace!!"

Unlike Casey Anthony, there was never a suggestion that Lester had anything to do with the death of his wife, but his post-mortem demeanor could affect the award. The defense contends that Lester lied about the photo in his response to a document request and under oath about seeing the so-called stink-bomb email. Lester did not respond to an email from a reporter.

Murray, according to the defense, did not turn over the stink-bomb email until after the December 2010 trial.

"He falsely represented to this Court that it had all the ordered emails, which he knew was an egregious lie," says the court filing. When the trial was over, Murray produced the stink-bomb email and "continued his cover-up by sending a letter to this Court blaming another paralegal" for leaving out the stink bomb email, the filing alleges. When the paralegal refuted his story, Murray admitted in a February 28 deposition that he "had lied about that too," the filing claims.

Allied counsel also alleges that Murray did not disclose a connection to a juror. Here's the connection: Juror Mandy Hoy was the former director of Meals on Wheels, an organization with which Murray's firm has donated money and for whom Murray's mother, Bunny Murray, has volunteered for 15 years.

Allen & Allen stood to gain $3 million from Murray's conduct that was "egregious, unlawful, and unethical," according to the filing.

Defense attorney David Tafuri declined comment on his request for sanctions, but the news of Murray's conduct and abrupt resignation sent shock waves through Charlottesville's legal community, where Murray is both well-respected and well-liked.

"My reaction is one of very great surprise and disappointment because I think he's a good lawyer," says Tom Albro, who has battled Murray in the courtroom, notably in what he calls the "infamous WVIR libel case" in which Murray won a $10-million defamation award (later reduced to $1 million) for his client against the television station Albro represented.

"I think that he's a good person and he works very hard for his clients," says Albro. "I've found him to be absolutely courteous and ethical."

Accusations of evidence destruction are very serious– and unusual– and could be subject to contempt or an ethics violation, says Albro. "Particularly if discovery had been served," he says, "then it's most certainly a violation and would be sanctionable."

Albro reports that there was a contentious relationship between Murray and Tafuri, who practices with Patton Boggs in Washington, DC.

"The way they practice the law in DC and Northern Virginia is scorched earth," observes Heilberg, though he hedges, "I'm not saying Tafuri is like that."

Heilberg, who admits he isn't familiar with details from the case, says that it seems that the emails sought by the defense would fall under attorney-client privilege.

"For the judge to ask seems unusual," says Heilberg. "There are very limited exceptions to breaching confidentiality."

As for Murray's connection to the juror, Heilberg says that sounds pretty tenuous.

"What did Matt personally know?" asks Heilberg. "He may have known his mom's a volunteer, but unless he went with her, he wouldn't have known the director. Allen & Allen donates a lot of money. It could be that he met her and didn't remember."

As for the Facebook photo, it seems "marginal" to Heilberg. "It would be more relevant in a case where the spouse survived," he says. "[Isaiah Lester] is in his twenties, he's acting his age, he's expressing his grief in a poor public display.

"There's a difference between saying take down the photos and destroying them," says Heilberg. "It's not evidence. It happened after the fact."

And, he wonders, "What does this have to do with [Allied's] liability and that someone was killed?"

Allied attorneys offer some suggestions to Judge Edward Hogshire, who will hear the case September 23: dismiss Lester's claim as a sanction for Murray's alleged conduct; order a new trial, and prohibit Allen & Allen from representing him, or slice the award to $2.2 million or $1.1 million, and prohibit Allen & Allen from collecting its contingency fee.

"I don't know what Matt did," says Heilberg. "He might have crossed a line, and it could have been forgivable misconduct," warranting a private reprimand from the Virginia State Bar. "He's already had his public reprimand."

–edited 11:11am Tuesday, July 26 for print publication


"The Facebook photo taken one year after Jessica's death showed widower Isaiah Lester holding a can of beer and wearing a t-shirt that read "I [heart] hot moms" with a garter around his head, according to court filings."

I guess I'm not getting how a picture taken a year after the death depicting the widowed husband partying is a problem? Or how that's in any way like Casey Anthony? Casey Anthony was partying *during the same time* her three year old daughter was missing, presumably at her own hands. This guy was partying a year after his wife was dead, from causes that had nothing to do with him. While some people would say that's in bad taste, it's still not illegal, or even in the same ballpark of what Casey Anthony did. So now anytime anybody anywhere parties at any point after a loved one passes they're going to be likened to "Casey Anthony" ? You've got to be kidding me.

"....says Heilberg. "It's not evidence. It happened after the fact."

And, he wonders, "What does this have to do with [Allied's] liability and that someone was killed?"

Exactly. What does it have anything to do with anything? Sounds to me like some people are grasping at straws and making mountains out of molehills. A truck carrying 36,000 pounds of concrete traveling on a road it should not have been traveling at, going at unsafe speeds, tipped over onto an innocent victim's car, resulting in injuries that eventually killed her. End of story. Internet photos showing the surviving husband partying *a year later* have nothing to do with anything.

Although I agree that these things probably had nothing to do with whether Allied Concrete was negligent or not, the facebook was deleted and the documents requested were not turned over until after the case was over, apparently with a story that was refuted by someone supposedly involved. There is the problem. Apparently, the pictures go toward the defense disproving the depression the husband claimed to have developed after the accident, thus possibly affecting the judgment. Seems that is an integral part of the story as to why the pages were important.

"Let's see restitution made" vs "Let's make a huge chunk of change" There's a need to get proper recognition of a life lost through stupidity, and there's lot of money to be made in doing it well.

ever been depressed, "possibly"?

Wearing a T-shirt and drinking beer are hardly atypical behaviors for a depressed person.

Meanwhile: I never said they were atypical behaviors. I am not commenting on whether this is right. Ever looked at a public record? Ever heard of "don't shoot the messenger?" The facts are the facts. The problem is the data which was supposed to be turned over, yet wasn't. It was related to the case concerning the plaintiff's claim of depression and PTSD. All I'm giving is the defense's reasoning for claiming "spoliation of evidence." It was up to the jury to decide the case.

Since it is part of the public record, I'm surprised The Hook didn't include the reason the defense is taking the actions they are. It makes no sense if not included, does it? Apparently, those commenting in the article on how it related did not know about this, either. It's all about reducing the size of the award. The defense has the right to raise questions about the photos and they're contending they were denied that right. Because they were denied that right, they are going to try to get a reduction for their client. Is it right?

Personally, if it had been included, I think it would have had no effect on the award, but that is only my opinion.

Allen & Allen's ads say: "I was looking for a competitor, a mentor, a fighter" they need to add "someone who will get me the biggest verdict by withholding evidence" .

I'm with Booo on this one and the Allied legal team was playing a despicable cynical game trying to change the game to focus on the irrelevancy of the dead woman's husband's childish antics on his facebook page. I could go on about the cultural rot involved in the melding of voyeurism and exhibitionism in social networking garbage like facebook . Breach of "legal ethics" notwithstanding, the advise given by Murray was sound enough as a strategy to blunt the opposition's black-hearted dirty tricks. The real onus ,in a moral world, would devolve on Allied Concrete's attempts to delay and divert so as to avoid being responsible for its employee's casual contempt for public safety involved in hot rodding a loaded ready mix truck weighing over 25 tons on a twisty country road and killing an innocent young woman who had done nothing wrong. The idea that an incident like this is an "accident" is a shameful calumny.
Putting the blame on Mat Murray here is like going after Mark Furman in the OJ trial where he ended up with the only criminal conviction of all the parties involved.

@ Possibly

"Since it is part of the public record, I'm surprised The Hook didn't include the reason the defense is taking the actions they are. It makes no sense if not included, does it? Apparently, those commenting in the article on how it related did not know about this, either. It's all about reducing the size of the award...."

Thanks for the background info, it makes much more sense now. (I think the Hook should have indeed included this information, because I can't be the only one confused as to what the problem is here.)

boooo!: Here's a link to more information:


Hope it helps.

@ Possibly


That aside, I still take exception to the Hook likening a guy partying a year after his wife's death (from a cause that had nothing to do with him) to being "a la Casey Anthony." Even if he's claiming depression, and people want to say that his party pics are proof to the contrary, the situation isn't even in the same *ballpark* as Casey Anthony - a mother accused of deliberately murdering her toddler, leaving the body in the trunk of her car long enough to start decomposing, then tossing the decomposed remains away in a trash bag, and then partying it up and lying extensively and hostily to everybody about it all for a month. How does the Hook even compare the two??

If the award was to punish allied then the picture makes no difference.

If the award was to compensate the man for his loss of happiness then the picture may or may not have spoken a thousand words.

The choice was the jurys to decide not the lawyer.

Allen allen allen allen allen allen allen allen and allen should give up their cut and move on or surender theri license to practice law.

Now the choice is up to a judge.

Although perhaps there is some validity to this allegation, it does not take away from the fact that Allied was guilty in the case.

The locally owned company was to blame in Ms. Lester's death. The company and its owners should have paid a long time ago for the negligence. This latest attempt by Allied's counsel is to minimize Allied's payment and should not negate the jury's verdict.

I agree this case should have been about the negligence of Allied but, if evidence ordered to be turned over was withheld, it became about something else. It became about also punishing those who might have affected the outcome of this case through illegal means and how much that might have affected the award. No matter how irrelevant the pictures and emails might have been, once withheld one has to ask why they were withheld, why the pictures were so important they might make an attorney resort to illegal subterfuge to hide them. It should have been about the jury seeing all evidence and making a decision based on the facts, instead now it is about the withholding of evidence that probably wouldn't have been that important if just turned over. Now, a really stupid error in judgment, if true, will probably reduce the award or cause a retrial.

the "Casey Anthony" comparison is really low class, trashy & unprofessional, total Tabloid "journalism"

First and foremost I think it is despicable that they would compare Mr. Lester to Casey Anthony, how disgusting! Second of all drinking is a common characteristic of depression and what was this man suppose to do, sit in his house like a hermit and contemplate all day everyday how miserable his life is! People have different ways of handling things when they face tragedy in their lives! ILastly, Facebook photos have nothing to do with the facts of this case, Allied Concrete is responsible for the death of Jessica Lester, no if, ands or buts about it, and on top of that what happen to attorney client privelages? The judge had no right to ask for those emails! This man deserves to be allowed to move on with his life! The defense is reaching and trying to mask the real issues of this case by blowing smoke about things that should not have any bearing on the jury's decision! You lost get over it you overbearing cocky self proclaimed hot shot attorney from D.C.!

One more thing if anyone who knows anything about this trial knows that the photos were shown at court by the defense during the trial and the jury knew all about them and the situation!

The photos did not change or affect their decision, point blank!

Matt Murray did his job and won. The defense is now doing their job for the insurance co. I'm sure Mr.Lester isn't complaining about Mr. Murrys work. Mr. Lester probably is depressed and he is probably quite pleased at the
possibility of a 7,000,000 paycheck too! I know I would have been quite thankful for Mr. Murrys expertise.

First of all, Jessica got killed almost 4 YEARS ago and this is still in the court system. Something is wrong with this! Allied is to blame for her death not him! To compare him to Casey Anthony is absurd! He had nothing to do with her death, maybe Allied should be compared.
Nobody took pictures of him in the corner at the table crying and believe me those times are far more than the happier ones...who would?! Do they expect him to never live his life again. Nothing will replace his wife. Nobody knows the pain her husband, family and friends have went through with her loss! Also, nobody knows the pain that he has everyday and to think he survived and she didn't! For the record "Hook" HE was driving not her!!!! I am disgusted that the legal system has taken this long on this case! 4 years is a long time to have to deal with the crap he has had to put up with, especially articles like this!

the fact a man is drinking a beer surrounded by his friends makes him like casey anythony is disgusting and makes me sick that there is such scum out there that talk before knowing facts. in that 'picture' he's with his friends from high school after a wedding wearing someone else's shirt along with the bride's garter whom he was close friends with from high school. this is about the life of a young and loving nurse who was ripped away from her friends and family due to carelessness and down right sheer stupidity. he admitted to wreckless drivng along with the witnesses stating he was on two wheels coming around the corner on a road he didnt belong on in the first place. someone's life has been taken and can never be replaced this should be the only fact needed in this case

@ justice should be served

Yeah, but notice the Hook still won't revise their story to remove that reference, no matter how out of line or inapplicable to this story it is. :/ But they'll make sure to put a front page headline informing everybody of their crossword puzzle mistakes.

There certainly seems to be a whole lot of disgusted and sick people here today.

I am the father of Jessica Lester... “photos of himself partying, à la Casey Anthony” …Tasteless, pathetic sensationalism. You should have stuck to the facts without going to the gutter!!!! The editor of the Hook should have never allowed that comment to be printed!

And still, the Hook refuses to revise their out of line comment comparing Isaiah Lester to Casey Anthony.

I am completely disgusted with this. How could there ever be any kind of comparison to Casey Anthony??? There is none! I know Mr. Lester personally and I know he has suffered thru a lot and for anyone to turn this around on him is disgusting. Allied killed his wife, not him point blank! No one will ever know that heartache unless they have been in his shoes. I used to be a huge fan of the HOOK but shame on you. Get your facts straight and how about you get to know Mr. Lester yourself before you make allegations on him like that! He is a wonderful person that lost his beautiful wife so how about we all start remembering that and what really matters!

Lisa, you have once again proven why you will never go anywhere. Shameful article and full of simple mistakes that you should have known were wrong, which makes them lies. The fact of who was driving, Isaiah or Jessica, you were sitting int the courtroom during both trials for crying out loud.

Dear the hook/Lisa,
Lisa....we meet again. This is not the first time that you have written about a friend of mine in a derogatory way. How dare you compare a man, who was the VICTIM of a car accident, to a lying, deceitful, child-murderer? What exactly was your thought process there. Casey Anthony had pictures taken of her during the 30 days between when her daughter was murdered/died (for the purpose of this post lets not argue that point) and when she finally reported her child "missing". However Mr. Lester, had a picture of him drinking a beer 1 year after his wife had died at the fault of an Allied truck driver. Where are the commonalities there?
Secondly - I studied substance abuse in college....and alcohol use is known to be used as a coping mechanism for those who are unable to deal with their grief for something that has happened in their life. So even if Mr. Lester was drinking a beer after his wife was killed in an accident a year before that picture was taken, who are we to judge? I know that when one finds themselves in a stressful situation sometimes, even though they know having a drink won't solve a thing, it will numb the pain.

Next time you write an article, think to yourself, what would I think if this had happened to my brother/best friend/father, etc. If their wife had died, and a year after a photo of them is posted of them having a beer....how would you feel if someone compared them to Casey Anthony. A woman who obviously has serious mental issues and who's case bears no resemblance to anything in this case.

Please be more responsible in writing in the future. And, if you purposely put the Casey Anthony comment in there to stir the pot, cause problems, or get attention for yourself and your reporting, shame on you. I truly hope that if you dont post a retraction or an apology, that you will at the VERY least reach out to Mr. Lester, his family, and the family of Jessica Lester to apologize for your disgraceful, distasteful, and vulgar comments.

JF, I totally agree with you and I honestly believe that if this person keeps making false allegations on innocent people then maybe she should lose her job because I will say that I will never pick up a Hook ever again as long as she's working there. How could someone be so hurtful and dishonest about a man that lost his wife and no money in the world could or would bring her back to him nor her family! I am so sick to my stomach and so upset over this. Mr. Lester, you keep your head up and you know you have great friends and family that is supporting you and will stand by you! All I have to say to the writer of this article is you are completely heartless and might possibly have some mental issues going on if you can actually feel good about yourself for writing such horrible things and comparing Mr. Lester to "Casey Anthony". Wow you obviously need to get your own life and stay out of others! Thanks!

What false allegations has this person made? She made a comparison of the facebook pages. Perhaps if some had read further they would have seen this:

"Unlike Casey Anthony, there was never a suggestion that Lester had anything to do with the death of his wife, but his post-mortem demeanor could affect the award."

I agree that the choice of this comparison was unfortunate, but she never compared James Lester to Casey Anthony, only that their facebooks were both seen by opposing counsel and the photos used.

Frankly this is a case of a sleazey big money attorney from D.C. (Allied's atty) trying to pull every dirty trick in the book to distract the jury from the real issue at hand. A cement truck with an Allied logo on the side of it, was driven irresponsibly and resulted in the death of a young woman in her prime. At the trial, they did present the picture of Mr. Lester. They did not disclose that (A.) it was taken OVER ONE YEAR later and (B.) Mr. Lester was at the wedding of a friend from high school. The judge that allowed this garbage in the first place was also clearly in the wrong. This is a clear violation of atty client privilege and also has nothing to do with tragic events at hand. So the Allied attorney tried to taint the jury with dirty tricks cause his client was clearly in the wrong. Those my friends are the facts of the matter.

Who the heck is Heilberg, anyhow? This article just starts citing 'Heilberg' as a source halfway through. There is no introduction that I could find. Did I miss something? Or perhaps he is a local that I would be aware of if I had lived here more than a year?

i have to admit that i was curious as to heilburg is too.

"Heilberg" is Dave Heilberg, a local lawyer whom The Hook often -- one might say almost always -- calls as their "legal analyst."

As a friend of Isiah's I find no fault in his actions. I find it very difficult for ANYONE to be critical of him--- have you lost your spouse and neither your own life in a the flask of a movement
Isiah--if you are reading- know that yoru friends support you.

As a friend of Isiah's I find no fault in his actions. I find it very difficult for ANYONE to be critical of him--- have you lost your spouse and neither your own life in a the flash of a movement?
Isiah--if you are reading- know that yoru friends support you.