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Never too late to do right

Last week’s news conference in which former FBI Assistant Director Chris Swecker took apart the Winston- Salem Police Department’s investigation of the 1995 attack at the Silk Plant Forest was familiar.

Let’s see, there has been: Duke University’s work on the project, which began in 2003 showing the likelihood that Kalvin Michael Smith was wrongly convicted in a brutal assaulting of Silk Plant Forest worker Jill Marker.

A five-part series in the Winston-Salem Journal in late 2004 pointing out the many flaws not just of the police investigation, but of those by prosecutors more interested in obtaining a conviction than the truth, and of the failings of Smith’s original defense attorney.

The lengthy work of the Silk Plant Forest Citizens Review Committee, which in 2009 concluded that the investigation was flawed, stating there was “no credible evidence’’ that Smith was even at the scene of the crime.

Swecker’s work, done independently at the request of a group of citizens interested in getting at the truth, is another confirmation of the fallacy of this case.

I was the editor of the Journal’s 2004 series, and I’d like to state for the record that this is and always has been a very simple case to write about. Anyone who truly studies the records and has a brain in their head will understand what happened here. A case was made against a man because a case could be made against that man via the manipulation of scant evidence, pliable witnesses and an incredibly sad and sympathetic victim. It’s as simple as that. Always has been.

The Journal never had it in for the police or the original detective or anyone else. A newspaper’s role is to uncover, without judgment. Just because what was uncovered was incompetence among those we trust to pursue the truth doesn’t make it less true or less worthy a subject. In fact, it makes it more worthy to be written about over and over.

The real issue isn’t about Smith’s appeals or whether he should get a new trial. The issue to me, a citizen of Winston- Salem, is why our entrenched politicians have fought so hard to ignore the truth of the Silk Plant Forest case, a truth that has been evident for nine years.

Why did police Chief Scott Cunningham in effect squelch the findings of the citizen’s review committee (which made use of two of his best investigators for 18 months, conducting more than 60 indepth interviews) rather than speak up?

Even with the case no longer in his jurisdiction, should DA Jim O’Neill have quietly let Smith’s appeal process play out without even attempting to acknowledge the flaws of his predecessors?

Why has Mayor Allen Joines not publicly stated the obvious: that, like it or not, the city does have another Darryl Hunt case on its hands?

Until officials come forward and admit the failures of this case, they will perpetuate the mistrust of our institutions that they so dearly want to believe is gone.

Years ago, a Mississippi prosecutor pursuing a murder conviction against a man who’d gone free for 30 years in the slaying of civil rights leader Medgar Evers had a simple statement in closing to the jury: “Is it ever too late to do the right thing?” As Chris Swecker noted at his press conference this week, “Justice does not have an expiration date.’’

The writer is the former senior editor of the Winston-Salem Journal.

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