Murder charge dismissed in Cottondale home invasion case

Murder charge dismissed in Cottondale home invasion case
Booking photo of Donald Clark in 2016 (Source: Tuscaloosa County Sheriff's Office)

COTTONDALE, Ala. (WBRC) - Donald Clark is no longer on the hook for the death of 77-year-old Willis Sample.

In 2016, Tuscaloosa investigators say Clark admitted to robbing Sample and his wife at gunpoint at their home in Cottondale. Clark was eventually charged with murder, after Sample passed away from a heart attack, shortly after the home invasion.

This week, a Tuscaloosa County judge dismissed the case after a psychologist said Clark didn’t fully understand his Miranda rights when he waived them and confessed. The news isn’t what Sample’s longtime neighbor Paul Hoggle wanted to hear.

"It doesn’t make sense. I didn’t figure the guy should ever get out of prison,” Hoggle said.

Hoggle’s known Sample for over 50 years

"He was just a nice guy. If you ever needed anything he was glad to help. I guess one of the best neighbors we ever had around here,” Hoggle said.

Since the home invasion, Hoggle has installed a number of deadbolt locks and other security measures around his home.

On Facebook, Willis Sample’s daughter, Nona Short, says the family is upset and disappointed. They say Clark’s confession included information that that no one would have known unless they were there.

Short writes in part “It angers me to know that someone who confessed to felonies got off on a technicality and is again free and a threat to the public.”

"If there’s anything I could do to put him back in there, you can bet your bottom dollar, I’d do it,” Hoggle said.

In a statement, Donald Clark’s attorney says his client is sorry for the Sample family’s loss.

“He knows that they have experienced pain beyond measure and their loss weighed heavily on him during the more than two and a half years he spent in the Tuscaloosa County Jail. The state made the difficult, but correct, decision to dismiss the case against Mr. Clark because of his sincere lack of understanding of one of the foundational principles of our republic, the right not to incriminate oneself. The state’s doctor thoroughly examined Mr. Clark and determined that he lacked the capacity to understand his rights, as described in the Miranda warnings. This was a difficult case with no easy answers. I am hopeful Mr. Clark will be able to be a productive member of society,” Daniel Pruet, Clark’s attorney said.

According to the judge’s order, prosecutors admitted that the only evidence they had against Clark was his own statements so the state moved to dismiss the charges. We’re still waiting to hear back from the district attorney’s office for a comment.

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