Illustration by Ben Hillyer

Police chief says policy has changed

Published 12:04am Sunday, December 9, 2012

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.”

  • Anonymous

    This was one of two things…stupidity on the part of the evidence handler or a cover up. ANY shooting, you go get a GSR test done on the suspect…that alone would have convicted him………………

  • Anonymous

    Say what you want, but when I saw the jury makeup for the trial. The outcome didn’t suprise me.

  • Anonymous

    So I guess all those people convicted of crimes before the onset of modern criminal forensics should have their records expunged.

  • Anonymous

    Agreed but that was not really the issue here. Come on, the police followed a blood trail straight to the guy they just shot with a fresh bullet wound and a bunch of cash. To an impartial jury that would have been an easy conviction. There was no impartial jury.

  • Anonymous

    The Keystone cops in action. Couldn’t find their behinds with both hands

  • Khakirat

    I disagree the the NPD for there needs to be more professionlism also with let-em-loose Lillie and Johnson letting guilty crime makers loose has got to stop in Natchez Adams county!! The crime person is back on the street doing crime again as soon as he is loose and these people need to be taken out of society . When you have law enforcement that have friends and family committing crimes and not taken care of business is sicken as the BOS not taking care of the million dollars worth of fines not paid up!! When you see a majority of blacks sitting on a jury in a trail that include a black person you all ready know that the black is going to get off and the law isn’t working where as I say the mafia (during its day and time)in its day made it work lawful in the weights and scales of justice!! These jurys maybe should be split up equal in both races to get a fair and just trial??!! Ms. law needs to get more teeth into it with more professional people to get these convicts into the prisons !!!

  • http://www.facebook.com/ishmail.dentor Ishmail Dentor

    Anyone could see from the makeup of the jury that this “slam dunk” would be a not guilty. Those “citizens” on the jury wouldn’t have convicted the lying, thieving piece of cesspool material with any evidence. This won’t be the last time this happens. With people leaving the area as fast as they are able all that will be left are people living on the “guvment”. Most of them don’t see anything wrong with stealing or shooting at the cops.

  • LdyBreez

    I can see where the officers and the DA would see it as an open and shut case. You have officers who were fired on. You have an officer who says we saw the suspect and we returned fire hitting him in the shoulder. You find a man with a bullet hole in his shoulder. You also find a pile of evidence near by (somewhere between the crime scene and where the suspect was found) a bloody shirt with hole in it, gloves, mask and weapon. Open and shut case, simple as that. But with all the CSI shows on TV, not so simple anymore. The jury expects the magic of TV in the real court room. They expect to see the results of testing that can take weeks or months but which they see in an hour which includes commercials. Some of these shows do not even have to send the evidence off, they have in house labs. These shows portray the officers out investigating in street cloths then they go back to the office and done white lab coats. Like I said the magic of TV. @CATFISH1981:disqus Would a GSR test have done any good in this case? The shooter was wearing a shirt, ( long sleeve or short?), gloves, and mask. I do not know how gun powder reacts when the projectile is fired from the gun, but seems most of it would be on the items being worn and very little if any on the man himself. Wouldn’t it have been better to tie the evidance to the suspect. You have a shirt with a bullet hole and blood, you have a man with a bullet hole and blood. Was the shirt found with the gloves and the gun? Did the blood on the shirt type match the mans blood type (RH factor) if yes, then send the blood samples off for DNA testing. Give the jury what the magic of TV suggests they have to have. Also, if the RH factor (simple and inexpensive test as far as I know) did not match then this would clear the man without more expensive testing, and they could continue their search for a suspect.

  • http://profiles.google.com/everette.roberts Everette Roberts

    Are you kidding folks……..you can’t send this poor black man to jail just for shooting a a whitey cop, come on.

  • Anonymous

    Soooooo the oj simpson jury was flown in. Blacks enabling, condoning, and ignoring bad things that other blacks are doing is just wrong. No progress will ever be made out of the situations that are prevalent in Natchez and abound across the nation. Pitiful. Blame society. Ignorance prevails.

  • Anonymous

    The jury should be tried for accessory after the fact, reckless abandonment of human principles, and common sense.

  • Anonymous

    I wonder how defense attorneys live with themselves knowing they are getting a piece of garbage set free?

  • Anonymous

    The appointment of the chief was a trade-off for the city attorney.

  • Anonymous

    If the prosecution had done it’s job, there would not have been eight black women on the jury. It’s called voir dire – selecting the jury pool.

  • Anonymous

    The the prosecutor was a fool for, you know, expecting a racially impartial jury in 2012.

  • Anonymous

    Both the prosecution and the defense pick the jury. And someone on the prosecution side was not paying attention.

  • Anonymous

    Correct. The prosecutor expected a racially impartial jury, regardless of racial makeup. The defense attorney was expecting the opposite. The prosecution was indeed not paying attention to reality.

  • Anonymous

    I think so. Do a GSR test on the shirt and gloves, and link the gloves and shirt to the suspect via DNA….simple…the jury was impartial…thats all it is too it. Itcould have been simple but between not sending evidence to the lab and a impartial jury.. we lost it. I was tought in the police academy to always maintain the chain of evidence and always send evidence to thelab. no matter if it was open and shut or not…and this jury is why you do these things.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000448814812 Ashley Friloux

    You do realize that EVERYONE gets an attorney, right? If you don’t represent them to the best of your ability, then they get off on a technicality. It sucks, and its annoying, but someone has to represent them.

  • Anonymous

    I agree Ashley and she did a bang up TV worthy job. Too bad the prosecution did nothing. I mean the tellers identified him, the deputies identified him as they exchanged gunfire, the man at the Ford place identified him, the blood trail led to a man hiding in the bushes with a gunshot, and had the money. Wow! Just WOW!!! Slam dunk except for a jury that is not going to convict one of their own. They should be tried for culpable negligence and sent to prison.

  • http://www.facebook.com/ray.ward.90834 Ray Ward

    Reading the posts on here has brought a question to mind. Whatever happened to “innocent until proved guilty”? Justice was served by the jury in their verdict. There was a reasonable doubt as to the man’s guilt and the system worked as it was designed to. There is the possibility the man was telling the truth.