Sheriff's investigation yielded needed changes

An internal investigation by the Beaufort County Sheriff's Office answers many questions about how a piece of evidence was not properly preserved, resulting in the collapse of a high-profile murder case.

Sheriff P.J. Tanner has taken the investigation's findings seriously, firing one deputy, reassigning a senior investigator and reprimanding three others. He's also vowed other changes to the Sheriff's Office.

Cpl. Curtis Evans lost his job, according to the internal investigation, because he did not tell his superiors about a recording he made with his body microphone while questioning one of three men charged with the murder of 8-year-old Khalil Singleton in 2012. Evans, who had no authority to question suspects, told defendant Aaron Young Sr. he could avoid a murder charge by cooperating with detectives. Young Sr. did cooperate, revealing where a gun was hidden. He was charged with murder anyway.

Additionally, a senior investigator, Capt. Robert Bromage, has been reassigned and put on one year's probation for failing to properly oversee and manage the investigation, including ensuring that all recordings were handed over. And three others were reprimanded for reasons that ranged from failing to review all recordings, for reiterating Evan's statements to Young Sr. and for failing to check with Evans to determine if he had made a recording while in the interrogation room.

The deputies' collective actions -- or lack thereof -- reveal sloppy police work and a lax approach to interrogation rules and handling of evidence. The termination of employment of one deputy and the reprimands of the others were in order and should help restore residents' confidence in the office's operations.

Other results from the shoddy work include:

  • Young Sr.'s attorney is claiming that Evan's assurances amount to coercion. The murder trial has been halted. Three separate trials for each defendant will be held, raising the price tag for taxpayers.
  • The last-minute surfacing of the recording raised suspicion that someone within the Sheriff's Office was intentionally trying to hide the evidence -- a claim Tanner has denied. The investigation affirms Tanner's assessment.
  • Some community members have raised concerns that other evidence may have been mishandled in the past and could be in the future.
  • First, we applaud Tanner's willingness to share the report with the media and the public. He could have tried to keep the report hidden, forcing the media to fight for its release. We appreciate his understanding that the sharing of the report is a matter of great public interest and assures residents that the matter has been looked into and actions taken.

    However, we still believe it would have been preferable for Tanner to turn the investigation over to an outside agency such as the State Law Enforcement Division. While we have no reason to believe the internal investigation was subpar, a fair, objective outsider reviewing the matter would have added a layer of confidence for community members, rattled by the revelation of mishandled evidence.

    Secondly, we believe Tanner will actively work to ensure such an event never happens again. The disciplining of several employees has likely gotten the attention of the remaining Sheriff's Office staffers. They know their boss is serious about adherence to the rules. Hopefully, additional changes to procedure to triple-check for evidence are on the way along with a new method to preserve the 100 or so recordings deputies make each day.

    We can only hope that the mishandling of the recording was a unique instance that has not occurred previously. As there is no way to check and no claims of other instances of mishandling have surfaced, we cling to the hope that this is an isolated case. And we look to Tanner to make sure it never happens again.