NC Prosecutor Explains How Innocent Men were Jailed for Murder

4:47 PM, Dec 2, 2003   |    comments
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Two men were falsely accused of a teenager's murder because of slow defense work, an overworked prosecutors' office and a witness' fear of a suspect, a prosecutor has written in a letter to the state attorney general.

A divided sheriff's department also cast doubt on the investigation, Buncombe County District Attorney Ron Moore said Monday in an 11-page letter to state Attorney General Roy Cooper. He also sent 124 pages of witness interviews to Cooper, asking if they could be released.

Moore wrote that he has finished reviewing how Sheriff Bobby Medford investigated the killing of Mary Elizabeth Judd, an 18-year-old North Buncombe High School senior who disappeared while on her way to catch the morning school bus.

The district attorney determined Medford and his office had done nothing wrong, but asked Cooper to review his findings.

"A sad thing has happened here in our county in the murder of Mary Judd and in the fact that two innocent men were jailed for it," Moore wrote. "But it is my determination that it did not happen as a result of wrongdoing on the part of the sheriff, nor did it happen as the result of gross incompetence on anyone's part, nor did it happen as a result of a willful, dangerous or malicious use of power."

Moore reviewed the case and wrote Cooper because of an Asheville Citizen-Times investigation that questioned whether the prosecutor had enough evidence to justify jailing David Hammack, 36, and John Collins, 30.

Collins and Hammack were released; a grand jury indicted Harold Eugene Brown, 32, of Mars Hill, in October on first-degree murder and rape charges in Judd's killing.

Detectives issued warrants for the arrest of Collins and Hammack within 24 hours after witness Lynette Smith signed a statement saying she saw them put a body wrapped in trash bags into the trunk of a car on Dec. 12, 2000, the day Judd disappeared.

Smith retracted her statement in August 2002, telling a defense attorney that Medford threatened to take away her children and jail her if she did not say she saw a body.

Moore said in his statement that criminal cases frequently rely on the word of a single witness and that Smith didn't deliberately lie and wasn't pressured by the sheriff. Moore said Smith and Collins lived together.

"Once she felt she had perhaps been mistaken, she no doubt had to come up with an explanation that would satisfy John Collins," Moore said. "Claiming she was frightened or pressured by the sheriff made sense to her."

Moore also wrote that professional rivalries within the sheriff's department hampered the case.

Collins and Hammack weren't put on trial for almost two years because of a defense attorney switch and a busy court docket, Moore said.

Collins' first attorney, Faye Burner, requested in October 2002 that she be removed from the case. Jack Stewart, the attorney who replaced Burner, didn't file motions in the case until March 2003, Moore said.

Moore also said his office was given Smith's retraction in February 2003 and Kate Dreher, the senior district attorney handling the case, was not able to review the 19-page retraction until May because of vacations time and other responsibilities.

"The situation we are currently in is very sad because Mr. Collins and Mr. Hammack lost their liberty during all those months," Moore wrote. "We can explain the contents of the file as it pertains to them, the actions of all those involved, the reason for various decisions and the passage of time. But we cannot give the time back to Mr. Collins and Mr. Hammack."

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