The strong-arm of the law?

Buncombe County justice took another body blow two weeks ago when the Asheville Citizen-Times published a detailed account of alleged wrongful incarceration at the hands of Sheriff Bobby Medford and District Attorney Ron Moore, along with allegations that Medford had coerced a witness. This shocking story would have come as no surprise to regular readers of Xpress, which has been reporting on problems with Medford’s and Moore’s conduct for a couple of years. Familiarity, however, should not be permitted to diminish public alarm. Medford and Moore must be held accountable for their actions: This community should demand answers concerning the lengthy detention of David Hammack and John Collins. At this writing, neither official has meaningfully addressed these grave charges.

As Xpress has detailed in the past, Medford has repeatedly behaved like a bully — whether brandishing a riot gun or threatening a reporter with federal prosecution (see “When worlds collide,” Xpress, June 13, 2001), or hinting at potential legal action against an editor (“Questionable conduct?”, Xpress, Oct. 23, 2002). Medford’s response to reporters’ legitimate questions has ranged from anger to hanging up to (most recently) a letter to Mountain Xpress from his attorney, stating: “Upon my recommendation, the Sheriff will not give personal interviews to you, by way of telephone or fax. You will have to continue your story without comment from Sheriff Medford.”

Moore, meanwhile, has deflected reporters’ queries, as when he asserted that confidentiality law barred him from discussing details of a medical record that had already been released to Xpress by the patient (“Buncombe justice on trial,” Xpress, June 18, 2003) and, in a separate instance, declined to explain why he’d shared a confidential file with another law-enforcement agency (“Small town scandal or the tip of the iceberg?” Xpress, March 6, 2002).

According to the Citizen-Times Nov. 9 report, one year after the December 2000 murder of Mary Elizabeth Judd, a single “witness” signed a statement implicating two brothers. On the basis of that statement — and absent any further evidence — Hammack and Collins were arrested and jailed for the murder. But nine months later, the witness recanted, saying she’d been “pushed into” making a false statement by Medford, who allegedly threatened to take her children from her if she failed to comply.

Other troubling questions remain. Why did Moore continue to hold the two men (for three months and five months, respectively) in the Buncombe County jail after being informed of the witness’s change of heart? All told, the brothers each spent nearly two years behind bars, waiting for a constitutionally mandated speedy trial that never arrived.

And why was another suspect suddenly charged with the murder two days after the second man’s release?

Asheville Citizen-Times correspondent Tonya Maxwell is to be commended for her thorough reporting on this apparent travesty of law enforcement and justice. This is precisely the sort of journalism this city and region deserve but rarely see in an era of media conglomerates and entertainment-driven news coverage. Recognition is also due to Maxwell’s editors — especially Executive Editor Robert C. Gabordi for standing firmly behind his reporter. In addition, the Citizen-Times courageously took what had to be the very uncomfortable step of reminding its readers — on its own editorial page — that although it had endorsed both Medford and Moore in past elections, the paper was now calling for their removal unless both could satisfactorily explain their behavior. Such a public reversal only underscores the gravity of these allegations.

The alleged bullying of Maxwell by Medford — as reported by Gabordi — parallels the experiences of Xpress staffers who have investigated his record in the past. And both Medford and Moore’s shifting of responsibility and refusal to answer reporters’ questions amounts to the same sort of runaround we’ve been given — most recently in our June 18 story on the apparent cover-up of a case involving Medford’s son.

At least three county commissioners, meanwhile, have declined to get involved in these matters, telling the daily (as they previously told Xpress) that they have no jurisdiction over other elected officials. This is true, as far as it goes. But what they fail to mention is that they do have jurisdiction over the public coffers, which could be drained by wrongful-imprisonment lawsuits. And the cost of such suits would be borne by Buncombe County taxpayers, whom these officials have a duty to protect.

For Board of Commissioners Chairman Nathan Ramsey to assert that he will “talk personally with Moore and Medford” is an affront to the public’s right to open government. And the fact that Ramsey was a major contributor to Medford’s re-election campaign makes it even more crucial that any suggestion of impropriety be avoided.

Voters won’t have another chance to pass judgment on these officeholders until the 2006 elections, a little more than two years away. And two years is a long time — just ask David Hammack and John Collins.

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