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Unfinished business?

by Keith Barber

Unfinished business? Silk Plant Forest Citizen Review Committee to hold final meeting Thursday

 

The Silk Plant Forest Citizen Review Committee is scheduled to hold its final meeting on Thursday at 5:30 p.m. at Winston-Salem City Hall. For the past 15 months, nine citizens have served on a committee created by the Winston-Salem City Council in October 2007 to look into how the Winston-Salem Police Department handled the 1995 Silk Plant Forest-Jill Marker assault case. Whether or not the committee fulfilled its assigned purpose is difficult to judge considering the city has not released the committee’s interim report, which the committee submitted to city council four months ago. City Attorney Angela Carmon said it would take a judge’s order to release the interim report due to sensitive personnel information contained in the document. “We had looked at the possibility of putting it before [Forsyth County] Judge [Edgar B.] Gregory but we didn’t calendar that motion, Carmon said. “We also looked at sitting down and pulling out the personnel information from the report.” Carmon said she could not say for certain when, if ever, the committee’s interim report would be released to the public. In regards to the committee’s final report, city councilman Dan Besse said ideally, a motion to release the report would receive a judge’s blessing before the city council releases it publicly. Besse said he couldn’t say when the report will be made public. Besse also said he expects the city council to discuss the committee’s final report during its Aug. 10 meeting. Mayor Pro Tem Vivian Burke, chairman of the Public Safety Committee, said she expects the final report will come before her committee before it is presented to the city council. The city council resolution that formed the committee defined its scope as investigating police procedure in the Silk Plant Forest case and making recommendations on possible reforms to those procedures. But because of a high volume of citizen concerns, the city council amended the resolution to make the committee an independent, fact-finding body. However, the committee was ordered not to make any finding regarding the guilt or innocence of Kalvin Michael Smith — the man convicted of assaulting Marker during an armed robbery of the Silk Plant Forest shop in December 1995. Smith has already served 13 years of a 29-year prison sentence. A 2008 city council resolution also gave the committee subpoena power, which it exercised after former Winston-Salem police Detective Donald R. Williams — the lead investigator in the case — refused to cooperate with the committee’s independent investigation. On April 9, Judge Gregory upheld the city’s summons to compel Williams to testify about his role as lead investigator in the case. Committee chair Guy Blynn said the focus of Thursday’s meeting will be discussing the testimony Williams gave to the city council on June 11. Due to personnel and privacy laws, the committee will hold their discussion in closed session. Blynn said he would’ve been happier with the committee’s final report if the group could’ve received the cooperation of a number of people, government agencies and organizations during its 15-month investigation. Blynn cited the Forsyth County District Attorney’s Office, the Winston-Salem Journal, the Winston-Salem Police Department and Duke University’s Innocence Project as some of the organizations that did not fully cooperate with the committee. Blynn said Forsyth County District Attorney Tom Keith’s office “cooperated as much as they claimed to be able to cooperate.” Blynn said the committee was told by the district attorney’s office that it had been advised by the NC Bar Association not to comply with the committee’s request and reveal the contents of the Silk Plant Forest case file. Blynn added that he didn’t believe Keith would withhold exculpatory evidence if he had it. During its meeting last month, the committee withdrew its request to have the city subpoena the notes of former Winston-Salem Journal reporter Phoebe Zerwick, who wrote a series on the Silk Plant Forest case in 2004. On June 30, Winston-Salem Police Chief Scott Cunningham informed Blynn he would not honor the committee’s request to compel current police detectives Mike Barker and Robert Cozart to submit to polygraph examinations regarding their role in the investigation of the 1995 Jill Marker assault case. The committee also requested the files from the Duke Innocence Project regarding its investigation into Smith’s case. The Innocence Project has not released any documents to the committee, Blynn said. “I think our result could’ve been better but I think it was pretty darn good,” Blynn said. “I think the public will agree.” Not everyone agrees with Blynn’s assessment. Steve Boyd, a Wake Forest University religion professor who served on the Sykes Administrative Committee — the citizen group that investigated the events that led to Darryl Hunt being wrongfully convicted of the rape and murder of newspaper editor Deborah Sykes — said he doesn’t believe the Silk Plant Forest Citizen Review Committee’s final report is going to do justice to this case. “I don’t fault the committee,” Boyd said. “They have been very industrious and diligent. They have been responsive to concerns of community members, city staff and the police department. The disappointment is that from the beginning the concern of community members was that if faulty flawed inaccurate and in some cases fabricated evidence and information goes into the judicial system, there are going to be flawed, unjust results.”

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