Mishandled evidence must be investigated

newsroom@islandpacket.comMay 18, 2014 

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Beaufort County Sheriff P.J. Tanner says an error led to the show-stopping discovery of a recording that derailed a murder trial on April 23. "Some mistakes are made preparing evidence. These things happen," Tanner has said. "It's unfortunate it happened on this case."

It's tragic when such events happen on any case, not just the big ones. If the Sheriff's Office could make a mistake on such a high-profile murder case, we can't help but wonder about the treatment lesser cases receive.

And more is needed than an internal review of procedures. Indeed, the public and Tanner should now be concerned about whether errors -- if indeed it was only an innocent error -- could happen again.

This case of botched handling of evidence is worrisome enough that an investigation by an outside agency, such as the State Law Enforcement Division, is needed to determine why the recordings were not properly processed and why they were not turned over to the Solicitor's Office following repeated requests for any and all evidence prior to the start of the trial.

At issue is the surprise appearance of a recording on the day the trial was set to start. It was one of several recordings made by investigating deputies shortly after 8-year-old Khalil Singleton was fatally shot while playing in his grandmother's front yard. Three men have been charged with murder who, according to the Sheriff's Office, exchanged gunfire on Allen Road. A bullet fired by one of the suspects, Tyrone Robinson, hit Singleton, according to the prosecution.

The recording that suddenly surfaced on the day of the trial resulted in the suspension of the trial, which was a year and a half in the making.

So how did this recording suddenly appear? That's still unclear.

The recording was overlooked twice before the trial, according to Tanner. Twelve other recordings did make it to the defense.

Even more confounding, 14th Circuit Solicitor Duffie Stone has said he and other prosecutors met with two Sheriff's Office officials three weeks before the trial began and urged them to turn over all evidence, including recordings. Stone said the Sheriff's Office officials acknowledged that there was one recording they still had and that they would deliver it to the Solicitor's Office quickly.

But the recording that was delivered wasn't complete, Stone said. The rest was the portion that turned up the day trial was to begin, he added. Defense attorneys say that part of the recording -- the one the Solicitor's office didn't get -- shows that one of the defendants was coerced to cooperate with investigators.

So why did part of the recording make it to the Solicitor's Office and another part did not? That's unknown.

Tanner has said all recordings from the day of the shooting were saved to an electronic system the Sheriff's Office uses, but were not burned to a compact disc as is normal procedure. That was an oversight that is now under review, Tanner said. Who made the oversight and why did no one else check behind this person? We don't know.

Since the recording was not on a disc, it was not included in investigative files turned over to the Solicitor's Office. It wasn't until defense attorneys repeated their request for all evidence as the trial was getting underway that the recordings were found on the electronic system and handed over.

There is a clear and urgent need for a complete accounting of what went wrong, a determination of who is responsible and an assessment of whether a mistake was made or someone intentionally manipulated the system. Results should be made public so residents understand what happened and what will be done to fix it.

But it's not fair or wise to expect Tanner to review his own agency in such circumstances. That's why we believe an outside agency that can cast a fresh pair of eyes on the Sheriff's Office's system is needed.

Tanner has said that, at this time, he plans to handle the matter internally as he sees no evidence of criminal wrongdoing. We encourage him to reconsider if for no other reason than to reassure the public that an outside body has also reviewed the matter and agrees with his assessment.

Until an investigation is completed and changes are made to the way evidence is processed, the public should worry that other evidence may not be making it to trial.

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