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Concerned citizens hire FBI veteran to delve into Silk Plant Forest case

by Keith Barber

 

A group of concerned Winston- Salem residents has hired a former FBI agent to look 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.

 

Two months after Winston-Salem Police Chief Scott Cunningham presented the findings of an internal police department review of the Silk Plant Forest case to the city’s Public Safety Committee, a number of citizens are openly criticizing the report and calling upon the Winston-Salem City Council to reject its findings.

Despite concerns about documentation of investigative activities and the handling of evidence, the internal police department review concluded that the Silk Plant Forest case should remain closed. The report was released publicly on Nov. 5.

The internal review committee, composed of Cunningham, police attorney Lori Sykes, Capt. David Clayton, Capt. Alonzo Thompson, and Lt. David Kiger responded to the report issued by the Silk Plant Forest Citizens’ Review Committee in July 2009.

The citizens review committee’s report concluded that “at critical stages in the investigation the investigators failed to follow procedures which, if followed, would have enhanced the reliability and completeness of the information that was provided to the prosecutors and ultimately to the court.” The report issued a vote of no confidence in the police department’s investigation of the case. Further, a majority of committee members signed a statement that they could find no credible evidence that Smith was at the scene of the crime.

The police department committee responded to the citizen committee’s findings in the 68-page report.

“The Committee does find that, had better documentation of investigative activities occurred, many of the questions existing today would not be an issue and would have been answered,” the report states.

One of the goals of the citizens group is to send a clear message to the Public Safety Committee and the Winston-Salem City Council that the group’s members are committed to finding the truth in the Silk Plant Forest case, group member Lyn Boyd said.

That is why the group retained the services of Chris Swecker, a retired assistant director for the criminal investigative division of the FBI, to delve into the police department’s investigation of the Silk Plant Forest case.

“Mr. Swecker will be continuing the investigation with or without the cooperation [of the Winston-Salem Police Department],” Boyd said. “He is moving forward. There is fast growing interest by other members of the community to contribute to that effort.”

Swecker served as the on-scene commander of the FBI operations in Iraq, managed the dismantlement of a Hezbollah terror cell in Charlotte, and oversaw the investigation and capture of fugitive Eric Robert Rudolph, according to the FBI’s website.

Cunningham declined to comment on whether or not the police department will cooperate fully with Swecker’s investigation. In an e-mail message, Cunningham said it would not be appropriate to comment before Monday’s meeting of the Public Safety Committee. The police department’s internal review of the Silk Plant Forest case was a discussion item on the committee’s agenda. Monday’s meeting was canceled due to inclement weather.

City Councilman and Public Safety Committee member James Taylor said discussion and public comment on the internal police department review has been moved to the committee’s Feb. 14 meeting. Taylor served on the Silk Plant Forest Citizens Review Committee, and has held the position that Kalvin Michael Smith deserves a new trial.

“I’ll be pushing to try to make that happen,” Taylor said.

Boyd said the members of her group would like to see the Public Safety Committee and the Winston-Salem City Council reject the police department’s review of the case and commit to cooperating fully with Swecker.

“We are not asking the Winston-Salem Police Department to reinvestigate the case,” Boyd said. “We are not advocates of Kalvin Michael Smith. We support the police department as a whole but we are simply supporters of the truth and in this case, Kalvin Michael Smith and the truth are aligned.”

Smith is currently serving a 23 to 29-year prison sentence. He has steadfastly proclaimed his innocence.

Boyd’s husband, Steve, is a professor of religion at Wake Forest University and a member of the group of concerned citizens. Steve Boyd served on the Sykes Administrative Committee — the citizens group that investigated the events that led to the wrongful conviction of Darryl Hunt for the rape and murder of newspaper editor Deborah Sykes.

“This is a multi-racial, multi-ethnic, multi-religious group,” Boyd said. “We are Christians, Jews, Protestants, Catholics, Muslims, blacks and whites, men and women of all ages. University students are on board with this. This time, we’re standing and not going away.”

The Rev. Carlton AG Eversley, president of the Ministers Conference of Winston- Salem and Vicinity, will lead a Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration that will include a student march from Mount Zion Baptist Church to Winston-Salem State University. Once students arrive at the Anderson Center, they will break into individual groups and discuss social justice issues, including the case of Kalvin Michael Smith.

Eversley characterized the police department internal review as a whitewash.

“It completely contradicts the work of the citizens review committee as well as the work of the Duke Innocence Project,” Eversley said. “It’s disappointing that the police chief is more concerned with saving face than with doing justice.”

James Coleman, a Duke law professor and Smith’s attorney, said he fully expects Swecker to arrive at the same conclusions as the citizens review committee.

“The question is, does that move the ball?” Coleman said. “That depends on the city, the [Forsyth County District Attorney’s Office] and whether they care one way or the other.”

Coleman said it’s difficult to understand why Cunningham would stand by a flawed investigation led by former police Detective Donald R. Williams.

“I would be very concerned if a police chief came in and promised to change the culture of the police department, then he defends something that is indefensible,” Coleman said. “One of the first major things he does is appoint this committee that he says is going to look into the Silk Plant Forest investigation, and then he issues a report that is nothing more than a whitewash.”

Boyd said the group of citizens is offering a hand to city council and the police department to get to the truth. Boyd addressed the argument made by Mayor Pro Tem Vivian Burke and other elected officials that the city council is not the proper forum to discuss Smith’s case, and that the matter must be decided in the courts.

“When 12 people are called to serve, their judgment of the guilt or innocence of the person on trial can only be based on truthful testimony — a complete investigation and that’s what they hear, that’s what they have to base their decision on,” Boyd said. “If what they hear can in any way be perceived as false testimony or they are only given a part of the picture, my opinion is it is unfair to lay the responsibility of a conviction at their feet.”

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