Committee delays action on Silk Plant Forest review

by Keith Barber

Jet Hollander speaks to members of the Winston-Salem Public Safety Committee regarding the Winston-Salem Police Department’s internal review of the Silk Plant Forest case during the committee’s regular meeting on Monday. Hollander characterized the story the police department has been putting forward about the 15-year old assault case as “a fraud.” (photo by Keith T. Barber)

After listening to the pleas of a group of concerned Winston- Salem residents to reject an internal review of the Silk Plant Forest case by the Winston-Salem Police Department, the city’s Public Safety Committee put off taking any action on the report during its regular meeting on Monday.

Mayor Pro Tem and committee chair Vivian Burke said the committee would like to hear the findings of former FBI agent Chris Swecker, who is currently looking into the case of Kalvin Michael Smith — the man convicted of brutally assaulting store clerk Jill Marker during an armed robbery of the Silk Plant Forest shop in December 1995 — before rendering a decision. Swecker, a retired assistant director for the FBI’s criminal investigative division, was hired by a group of concerned Winston-Salem citizens three months ago following the public release of the police department’s internal review, which concluded the case should remain closed.

City Manager Lee Garrity said the city and the police department are cooperating fully with Swecker.

“We [have] met with Mr. Swecker and agreed to allow him access to any file the law will allow us to let him see,” Garrity said.

Winston-Salem Police Chief Scott Cunningham confirmed that Swecker has visited the police department, and begun his review of the original case file. Garrity said that Swecker has made a request to interview current police officers who worked on the Silk Plant Forest investigation.

“What we told him was we would not prohibit that,” Garrity said. “The choice would be up to the officers [to speak with Swecker]. We’re not in a position to compel them.”

Cunningham presented an update on the police department’s investigation into issues raised by Smith’s attorney, James Coleman.

Cunningham said leads regarding a vehicle possibly driven by Kenneth Lamoureux, an early suspect in the case, on the night of the assault yielded no new evidence. Cunningham also reported that the police department had reviewed its file on Shane Fletcher, another early suspect in the case, and that review yielded no new evidence.

Cunningham responded to a written statement signed by a majority of the members of the Silk Plant Forest Citizens Review Committee that they could find no credible evidence to place Smith at the scene of the crime.

“The idea of credible is in the eye of the beholder,” Cunningham said. “The citizens committee, which went outside the scope of its authority by this [city] council, made certain statements that there is no credible evidence. That’s just outright wrong and there is evidence. The question is whether it is credible and valid or not. It is the court’s jurisdiction to decide that matter and the courts have repeatedly decided that.”

During the public hearing portion of Monday’s meeting, Jet Hollander, one of nine speakers, took issue with a number of Cunningham’s statements. Hollander argued that Cunningham’s statement regarding Lamoureux being dropped as a suspect after Marker identified her attacker as a black male was simply not true. Hollander said the evidence and the police reports of the lead investigator — former Detective Donald R. Williams — indicate that Lamoureux was dropped as a suspect six months before Marker identified her attacker as a black male. In addition, during that same interview of Marker in October 1996, she was shown a photo of Smith and failed to identify him as her attacker, Hollander said.

Hollander also claimed that former Detective Randy Weavil committed perjury during a pretrial hearing and characterized the story the police department has been putting forward about the Silk Plant Forest case as “a fraud.”

Darryl Hunt, who was exonerated of the rape and murder of Winston-Salem newspaper editor Deborah Sykes in 2003 after spending 19 years in prison, challenged Cunningham’s statement that the court system is the ultimate arbiter of what evidence should be deemed credible.

“I went through 12 motion hearings and the courts still said I was guilty and still kept me in prison for 19 years,” Hunt said. “So the courts do not have the final say. Everybody can be wrong; anybody can be wrong.”

James Taylor, a committee member who represents the Southeast Ward, said he believed it was a real possibility that “we have an innocent man in jail.”

“This man needs a new trial,” Taylor said. Derwin Montgomery, a committee member who represents the East Ward, said he does not agree with the police department’s internal review of the case. City Councilwoman Denise D. Adams said all that she has seen and heard has led her to the conclusion that city still has work to do on the Silk Plant Forest case.

“At this point, I don’t think we can move forward,” Adams said. “We have a problem.”

Wanda Merschel, a committee member who represents the Northwest Ward, expressed deep concern about the possibility of rejecting the police department’s internal review.

A rejection of the internal review would amount to a rejection of the police department, Merschel said.

“I would caution us,” she said. “This will have repercussions.”