° empty

Police chief says policy has changed

Illustration by Ben Hillyer

By LINDSEY SHELTON & VERSHAL HOGAN

The Natchez Democrat

NATCHEZ — It should have been an open and shut case.

At least that’s what the investigators working the high profile bank robbery turned cop shooting believed from day 1.

A gunman running from a local bank spotted three sheriff’s deputies coming his way and fired his weapon. The bullet struck one deputy who returned fire. That bullet struck the gunman in the left shoulder, all three deputies attest.

Police officers responding to the scene soon find a trail of blood and a man with a gunshot wound to his left shoulder sitting behind a nearby apartment complex.

He’s obviously the shooter, investigators and prosecutors argued.

LAUREN WOOD / THE NATCHEZ DEMOCRAT — Natchez Police Department Crime Scene Technician Joe Belling demonstrates the process of obtaining evidence left in lockers by police officers for different offenses. Once the evidence is placed into a locker, an officer must write it in the locker log and fill out a property record.

But a jury wasn’t so sure.

In a case that wrapped up in a local courtroom Nov. 21, the man accused of the June 2011 crime was found not guilty on three of the five charges against him.

No verdict was delivered on the remaining charges.

Why?

Only the jury can answer that question, but defense attorney Carmen Brooks built her case around a few simple omissions in the police department’s case.

“Whenever the state has the ability to send evidence off to the crime lab and link evidence to a defendant, it is essential to the jury,” Brooks said last week. “That link was missing.”

The Natchez Police Department collected various evidence including clothes reportedly worn by the suspect, a bloody glove and the gun reportedly used in the crime.

But none of the evidence was sent to the state crime lab for forensic testing, and Brooks argued during the trial that, because police did no DNA or gunshot residue testing, the evidence could not be linked to Smith.

Brooks said Friday she was able to create reasonable doubt in the case because of the lack of forensic evidence.

“I can’t say it made my job easier, but it was an argument that I made every effort to put forward to add reasonable doubt,” Brooks said. “It definitely left an opening.”

Brooks wasn’t the only local defense attorney to build a case in November around what Natchez Police officers failed to do. A week prior to Brooks’ courtroom successes, attorney Tim Cotton sang a similar tune.

Cotton was defending a man on trial for the murder of an acquaintance at the Natchez City Cemetery, and Cotton referenced a lack of forensic evidence several times.

No gunshot residue test was done and no fingerprints taken.

A jury returned a guilty verdict in that case, despite Cotton’s arguments about a lack of evidence.

Shoddy police work or a hard to please jury?

Natchez Lt. Craig Godbold, NPD’s lead investigator, said he is not convinced that forensic evidence would have made a difference in the trial of the man charged with bank robbery and shooting at an officer.

“I think (the jury) already had their minds made up,” Godbold said.

But Godbold and District Attorney Ronnie Harper did say jurors now expect to see forensic evidence in every case — even if it simply may not exist.

“Because of television, people just think you’re supposed to have that (forensic evidence) in every case,” Harper said. “Sometimes it’s not necessary.”

The type of crime and evidence available, as well as whether police have a known suspect determines whether it is sent to the state crime lab for testing, Godbold said.

“At one point, we were unlikely to (send evidence to the crime lab), if we have a known suspect or eyewitnesses” Godbold said. “It’s a very costly process. DNA testing costs $1,500, and we don’t recoup that expense.”

Because Smith was caught near the scene of the crime and had been shot in the shoulder, the same place deputies said Frank shot the bank robbery suspect, Natchez Police Chief Danny White — who was on the force but not chief at the time of the crime — said investigators were sure they could get a conviction.

Changes to the policy

That conviction in the trial of the accused bank robber didn’t come, but Harper has said the man will face trial again on the remaining charges.

Still, White is already taking steps at the police department to ensure a lack of forensic evidence doesn’t cost a conviction in future cases.

“If we would have done (forensic testing), it would have been the end of the case,” White said. “It won’t happen again.”

White, who stepped into the role of chief earlier this year, said NPD does not have written policies outlining procedures to follow on having evidence forensically tested.

“That is something I want to sit down and get done,” he said.

But the department is already making a concerted effort to have significant evidence forensically tested, he said.

White said he has instructed the NPD’s investigators to send pertinent evidence collected to the state crime lab no matter if they believe a crime is an open and shut case.

“We’re sending it all,” he said. “We won’t be caught like we were in this last trial.”

At the Adams County Sheriff’s Office a procedure is already in place that results in multiple reviews of evidence, Sheriff Chuck Mayfield said.

At the scene of a violent crime — be it an aggravated assault or a murder — the first responder secures the scene and detains any witnesses, and then calls Chief Investigator Ricky Stevens.

Once Stevens arrives on the scene, he becomes the lead officer on the investigation and does the evidence collection himself while providing oversight to the other investigators working the case.

Stevens and the other investigators then take the evidence to the sheriff’s office and meet with Mayfield.

“We sit down with whatever investigators are involved and go over the case and what needs to be done,” Mayfield said. “Does this person need to be interviewed, does this person need to be found and interviewed again, does this need to go to the crime lab?”

After determining what needs to happen, and what needs to be shipped for testing, the sheriff’s office investigators have regular, routine meetings to discuss the cases until they go to trial or are resolved, Mayfield said.

“If something is not done, we find out why it hasn’t been and make sure it is done,” he said.

“It doesn’t matter the severity of the case, if there is evidence that has to go to the crime lab, we send it, because no case is a slam dunk. You can’t say, ‘It is obviously this guy who is guilty and he is never going to trial.’ We do everything we can to shore up our case to take it court. If you have to spend a little money, that’s what you have to do.”

“If you don’t do your job and follow through and cover all your bases, that defense attorney, if they are worth their salt, they are going to pick up on that and that is what they are going to attack.”