Critics question Silk Plant Forest Citizen Review Committee’s effectiveness
In less than six weeks, the Silk Plant Forest Citizen Review Committee is scheduled to present the preliminary findings of its investigation into Winston- Salem police procedure in the 1995 Jill Marker-Silk Plant Forest assault case to the Winston-Salem City Council. The presentation by the committee, which was formed by the city council in October 2007, will mark the first time a report has been issued by the nine-member citizen group. The Silk Plant Forest Citizen Review Committee will hold its next meeting Feb. 9 at 5:30 p.m. at City Hall.
On Dec. 17, 2008, the city council set a 90-day deadline for the committee’s report after former Winston-Salem police Detective Donald R. Williams, the lead investigator in the Silk Plant Forest case, failed to respond to a subpoena. The city issued a subpoena at the committee’s request after Williams refused to speak to two police detectives assisting with its investigation. During an internal investigation into the Silk Plant Forest case by the Winston- Salem Police Department in 2007, Williams made his position clear during a recorded telephone conversation with Lt. Ted Best. “I told [Assistant District Attorney] Mary Jean [Behan], ‘I ain’t talking to the press, I ain’t talking to the police department. I ain’t talking to nobody unless the DA wants me to come in and talk to them,”’ Williams said.
City Manager Lee Garrity threw out the police department’s internal investigation report after it came to light that Best and other officers conducting the investigation actually worked on the original investigation that led to the arrest and conviction of Kalvin Michael Smith. After Williams failed to answer the city council’s subpoena, city attorney Angela Carmon was directed to file a motion with the court to compel Williams to testify. As of this week, committee chairman Guy Blynn said he has no knowledge that Carmon has filed any such motion with the court. In the coming weeks, the citizen review committee will attempt to interview and conduct polygraph examinations of a number of individuals involved in the case, Blynn said. Individuals to be interviewed include Smith, who was convicted of brutally assaulting Marker by a Forsyth County jury in 1997. On Jan. 8, Forsyth Superior Court Judge Richard L. Doughton denied Smith’s plea for a new trial. Smith is currently serving a sentence of 23 to 28 years at Albemarle Correctional Institution in New London. The committee’s witness list also includes Kenneth Lamoureux, an early suspect in the case, and a number of current and former Winston-Salem police detectives. Blynn said the committee also plans on asking the Winston-Salem Journal for permission to speak with former reporter Phoebe Zerwick, who wrote a five-part series about the Silk Plant Forest assault case for the newspaper in 2004. Clearly, the committee has a full plate, and the chances of the nine-member panel gathering all the information it hopes to
includein its March report appears slim at this point. This has led somecritics to wonder why it has taken the committee so long to completeits assigned task. The 2007 city council resolution limits the scope ofthe committee’s work to suggesting recommendations regarding policeprocedure. The resolution states the committee “shall not make afinding or determination of the guilt or innocence of Kalvin Smith orany other possible suspect and shall not supplant the courts, officersof the courts, other investigators or law enforcement agencies.” Christine Mumma, executive director of the North CarolinaCenter on Actual Innocence, said the effectiveness of any civiliancommittee depends on how quickly they get their reviews done, and whatelected officials do with the information. “It’s not so muchwhat the review committee comes out with — it’s what they do with itafterwards. What we’ve seen in the past is review committees are set upto appease people until tensions diffuse,” Mumma said. CarltonEversley, pastor of Dellabrook Presbyterian Church, can attest to thetension in the Winston-Salem community surrounding the Kalvin MichaelSmith case. Eversley, who also serves as chairman of the Darryl HuntProject, cited a different kind of tension that has been blocking thecommittee from completing its duties. “This committee has beenin existence for nine months and they’ve been begging [Forsyth DistrictAttorney] Tom Keith to come but he hasn’t done that a single time. Hehasn’t responded to the people,” Eversley said. “We need a chief lawenforcement attorney who is urgently seeking the truth, and it seems tome, Tom Keith is just the opposite. Most black people and an increasingnumber of white people are tired of that.” Keith did not return callsfor this story. Eversley pointed to Assistant DistrictAttorney Mary Jean Behan’s testimony during Smith’s plea hearing for anew trial that she failed to turn over lineup photos to William Speaks,Smith’s trial attorney, that proved Marker failed to identify Smith asher attacker during an Oct. 31, 1996 interview with Williams. Eversleycited the fact that neither Behan nor Keith has spoken to the citizenreview committee as evidence that a change is needed in the DA’soffice. “Unlike the Darryl Hunt case, where Tom Keith was notthe DA for the majority of it, this is his case,” Eversley said. “Thisis his baby, his Frankenstein, and he has not acted with a sense ofurgency for truth and justice. I do not feel he has moral credibilityas the leading law enforcement attorney in the county.” Civilianreview commissions have historically been criticized for being cooptedby the group they’re reviewing and never finding in favor of thecomplainant, said Anita Earls, executive director of the SouthernCoalition for Social Justice in Durham. “What it takes is thepolitical will of the members of the committee and the city council,”Earls said. “I think the same is true of every agency set up to reviewpolice action. There is always the risk they could end up functioningas a rubber stamp.” During Kalvin Michael Smith’s plea hearinglast month, evidence of suppression of evidence by the Winston- SalemPolice Department and the Forsyth County District Attorney’s Office wasput forth by Smith’s attorney, David Pishko. Also, evidence ofwitnesses being coerced by police to give false testimony — ashighlighted the recantations of two of the state’s key witnesses fromthe 1997 trial — and conflicting testimony offered by current andformer police detectives was offered as a basis for granting Smith anew trial. But Judge Doughton ruled Smith failed to prove his claims. JetHollander, a supporter of Kalvin Michael Smith, said the legal hurdlesfor a defendant wishing to be granted a new trial are extremely high.Therefore, the Silk Plant Forest Citizen Review Committee could beSmith’s last chance of getting justice. “For years in thiscase, the facts have begged to be heard,” Hollander said. “When thetruth has rung the doorbell of justice, no one’s been home. The SilkPlant Forest Citizen’s Committee, and their two highly experiencedpolice detectives, are the last hope for Smith, for Jill Marker, andfor all those who value the simple virtue of telling the truth.” Earlssaid judges experience conflicting pressures in cases like Smith’s, butno one’s interests are served when the wrong person is convicted. “That’swhy it’s so important for the citizen review committee to perform thefunction they’ve been set up to perform — in good faith, review whatevidence there may be that police officers are not doing their jobproperly,” Earls said. The facts that have been uncovered since Smith’s1997 conviction have revealed unethical behavior by both police andprosecutors and a well-orchestrated cover-up, Hollander said. Thatmakes the work of the citizen review committee all the more vital toachieving justice in Smith’s case. “The most alarming revelation is notthat a few misguided detectives concocted evidence, suborned perjury,and committed perjury themselves,” Hollander said. “They did all that.But, the most shocking development is the complicity of those who arenow zealously covering for them, and for themselves, therebyundermining confidence in the honest and vital work performed everydayby the majority of police personnel.” Earls said it would befair to say the work of the Silk Plant Forest Citizen Review Committeewill have a lasting impact on the criminal justice system in ForsythCounty. “Everyone loses when the institutions that we’ve setup don’t perform their functions well or properly because victims havean interest in the right person being brought to justice. It doesn’thelp victims to have the wrong person in jail and it doesn’t make anyof us any safer to have the wrong person in jail,” she said.
Kevin Hollander (far left) plays an original song in honor of Kalvin Michael Smith before an estimated crowd of 35 people during a candlelight vigil on Jan. 9 in Winston-Salem. Hollander and his father, Jet, have both appeared before the Silk Plant Forest Citizen Review Committee in the past year to speak on Smith’s behalf. The committee is charged with the task of investigating police procedure in the 1995 Jill Marker-Silk Plant Forest assault case, and is scheduled to present its findings to Winston-Salem City Council next month. (Photo by Keith T. Barber)