Photo via Flickr.com (tomswift46).
Two Charlotte-Mecklenburg officers murdered.
A suspect in custody and a trial underway.
Clearly, these are the makings of a capital case.
And yet the judge presiding over the case has barred prosecutors from seeking the death penalty. Why?
Perhaps it's because he recognizes that if he'd allowed prosecutors to successfully seek the death penalty that the sentence would ultimately be overturned on appeal. The probable basis for that appeal? Consider the following:
America's court system affords appellants the opportunity to backtrack a case's progression, review witnesses' statements, and scrutinize an investigator's documentation. But if that documentation is missing...
And so we come back to what reportedly happened in Charlotte. Homicide Det. Arvin Fant apparently lost some of his notes, thereby eroding the paper trail that courts covet. Let me repeat that for effect: During the investigation into the murders of two brother officers (Sean Clark and Jeff Shelton), a homicide detective reportedly discarded his notes.
For the officers' families, this is a tragic complication to the prosecution of Demeatrius Montgomery, the man charged with taking their loved ones' lives.
Unfortunately, Det. Fant reportedly has a history of being sloppy and careless when it comes to record keeping.
His inability to locate documents was the basis for an armed robbery defendant's appeal in 2003. And while the court in that case ultimately deemed that the missing paperwork was not of such significant evidentiary value as to require a mistrial, Fant was effectively put on notice.
And yet history may have repeated itself, possibly many times over.
An independent panel is now reviewing at least 18 Charlotte-Mecklenburg homicide investigations handled by Fant. The impetus for the review is a growing perception that Fant was perhaps, at best, incompetent; and at worst, willing to lie to cover up his sloppiness.
Just how many cases may ultimately be overturned or how many lawsuits may be generated cannot be determined at this time. But this is bad. It's so bad that Fant himself may ultimately face a criminal trial. You see, when a D.A.'s office finds its efforts unraveling, it often seeks its pound of flesh.
But while Fant's head is the one on the block, one has to wonder who's been minding the fort in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg PD. That Fant was allowed to remain in such a coveted assignment and to investigate a double cop killing is no less deserving of inquiry.
Such incidents serve as reminders that homicide units need to continually evaluate their own. This means administrators need to go beyond rubber-stamped evaluations and protecting their beer-drinking buddies. It means recognizing red flags on matters of competency, bias, and temperament, and taking corrective measures when necessary. It means not adding unnecessary heartache for victims and their loved ones and not giving violent criminals a path to acquittal.
This story should also serve as a warning for all investigators and all patrol officers. Your notes are legal record. Make them as complete as possible and keep them safe and secure. Failure to do so can compromise a prosecution.
Comment below and let us know how you maintain and safeguard your notes.