A man who was convicted of murder and sentenced to death was granted a new trial five years ago after a judge found that his attorneys made egregious errors of judgment in their handling of his case. He’s been sitting in jail waiting ever since.
Michael Patrick Ryan, 62, was accused of robbing and shooting 66-year-old David Farrar of Mount Holly on March 20, 2007. Ryan and another man, Wes Adair, were indicted on charges of first-degree murder in Farrar’s death. Adair was allowed to plead guilty to second-degree murder in exchange for testifying against Ryan. Adair said that he went with Ryan to Farrar’s house, robbed him, and shot him, according to a court order.
Ryan was tried twice in the case. The first trial ended in a mistrial, with the jury split 4-4-4 — four for not guilty, four for a conviction on a charge of second-degree murder, and four for conviction on a charge of first-degree murder.
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A year later, Ryan went to trial again, and the jury found him guilty and recommended that he be sentenced to death.
Ryan was first granted a new trial in 2017 after Judge W. Erwin Spainhour found that Ryan’s attorneys had made several major mistakes.
Their first mistake involved the testimony of an SBI agent, Michelle Hannon, who, according to Spainhour, used scientifically incorrect guidelines and protocol in her interpretation of DNA samples. Essentially, Spainhour said, Hannon used scientifically unacceptable techniques in her interpretation of DNA evidence and told the jury that Ryan “could not be excluded” as a contributor of DNA.
If Hannon had followed accepted scientific guidelines, Ryan would have been ruled out as a contributor, Spainhour wrote. None of the DNA samples, which were from swabs and cuttings from possible weapons, Farrar’s clothes, and items stolen from Farrar’s house, matched the sample from Ryan.
Ryan’s attorneys initially retained a doctor to review the DNA testing results, but they failed to send him laboratory reports and supporting data for several of the evidentiary samples, and they never called him to testify or to help cross-examine Hannon.
During Ryan’s second trial, Ryan’s attorneys also failed to call several other available witnesses, including Christina Ryan, Ryan’s daughter, who claimed to have been with her father the day of Farrar’s death and could have provided an alibi.
Christina and her father went to Stanley Middle School the day of Farrar’s death to try to enroll Christina in the school, and on the way back, Ryan’s pickup truck broke down, and Ryan repaired it on the side of the road.
After Farrar died, Christina, who was 13 at the time, was interviewed alone by Eddie Howell, an investigator from the District Attorney’s Office, and Christina later admitted that she became upset and made things up to get him to go away.
Christina then was not prepared at all to testify in the first trial, and prosecutors questioned her credibility because of inconsistencies in what she told Howell. Because her testimony during the first trial did not go well, she was not called to testify during the second, and therefore she was not present to provide a potential alibi for Ryan.
Christina’s mother, Wendy Ash, who had been on the phone with Christina while she was with Ryan and could have corroborated her testimony, also was not called to testify.
Ryan’s defense attorneys also did not call a neighbor, Denise Arnold, as a witness. Arnold saw Ryan working on his vehicle the day of Farrar’s death, then later saw him return in his truck, testimony that might have supported his alibi. Arnold also saw a blue van drive out of the neighborhood with two people in it, and later return, driving fast. Neither person in the van appeared to be Ryan.
The state appealed Spainhour’s decision, and the N.C. Supreme Court heard arguments in the case in 2019. They eventually agreed with Spainhour that Ryan deserves a new trial.
Ryan’s new attorney, Lisa Dubs, said that after Ryan was granted a new trial, she tried to ask for a bond reduction in the case, but the county’s previous district attorney, Locke Bell, did not put it on the trial calendar. Then the pandemic caused delays within the court system.
Dubs intends to ask that the case against Ryan be dismissed.
District Attorney Travis Page said that while there are multiple trials scheduled this year in homicide cases, none of them are Ryan. However, he said, his office does plan to re-try Ryan, likely in 2023.
He said that he feels pressure to try Ryan for the sake of the Farrar family, but he feels that sense of pressure in all the homicide cases his office handles.
Reporter Kara Fohner can be reached at 704-869-1850 or at email@example.com. Support local journalism by subscribing here.