Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Waiting for answers about alleged police misconduct

When police use force to subdue a suspect, part of my job as a reporter is to scrutinize what happened, to help the public determine whether officers’ actions were appropriate.

Last week, my colleague and I spent hours talking to witnesses about events surrounding a police shootout with -- and arrest of -- a robbery suspect.

Police say Malcolm Xavier Springs shot a man in a robbery on West Trade Street then shot and injured a police officer during a foot chase before the officer shot Springs in the abdomen. The police statement said nothing more about Springs' arrest. But eight people in the neighborhood told us that during the arrest, as Springs lay handcuffed (and apparently wounded) on the ground, several police officers hit, stomped and kicked Springs.

We published stories about these events on March 20, 21 and 22. The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department then issued a special request for witnesses to come forward with information about the shootings and the arrest.

The department has declined to answer our questions about the arrest. But it sought to assure the public that investigators are reviewing the shooting -- as well as the arrest -- saying in a written statement: “In an effort to preserve the trust and confidence of the community, the CMPD investigates all accusations of officer misconduct.”

We may or may not hear from police about whatever their investigation concludes -- or whether any officers are disciplined. In two previous instances in which witnesses questioned the department's account of police shootings, the officers involved were cleared but the official explanations did little to address the discrepancies raised.

We will continue to seek answers in the Springs case. You should also know we do not publish allegations of police misconduct lightly.

The shooting between Springs and Officer Brent Harrison happened at 1:30 a.m. on a street with few overhead lights. Several people who said they saw what happened had just been awakened by sirens or gunshots. They might have been groggy. Most said they were scared.

We know from research and experience that eyewitness accounts can be inaccurate. We ask a lot of questions to be sure people are speaking from their own recollections, and not simply repeating things they’ve heard. We also ask for details to help us scrutinize their accounts, as well as their credibility.

What did you see? How far away were you? Where were you watching from? Could you see and hear well from there? Could you be fuzzy on details because of the early hour? How long did the events last? Was there any point when you couldn't see what was going on? Are you sure? Can we go over it all again? The questions can go on and on.

We also compare witness accounts. Are they similar, or are there discrepancies? Are they too much alike? Did the witnesses seem credible? Did they have a good vantage point?

Police may also be asking witnesses such questions. But we won't know unless or until they offer a detailed accounting of their investigation. Stay tuned.

-- Cleve R. Wootson Jr.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Questions linger in woman's death

The missing fliers for Janet Simpson have been taken down. Family and friends, who had hoped for her safe return, mourned her loss at a memorial service. But the questions still linger.

Simpson had been missing for nearly three months when her body was discovered floating in the Catawba River on Feb. 23.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg police haven’t said whether her body revealed any evidence that might indicate homicide or suicide.

It could be weeks – or even months – before the autopsy is completed. It’s possible a cause of death may not be able to be determined, depending on the state of her body.

Simpson, a 56-year-old mortgage broker who liked to garden and travel, was last seen Dec. 5 leaving the Liberty East Restaurant on East Independence Boulevard after breakfast. Her SUV was found days later in Belmont, not far from the river.

For days, authorities used sonar equipment and cadaver dogs to search a stretch of the river, but they weren’t able to locate her body until it surfaced last month.

Police have not said whether they believe Simpson’s body was in the river for the length of her disappearance.

Factors that affect a submerged body’s ability to float include water temperature and depth, bodily gases, and underwater obstructions, according to a 2006 article published in the FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin.

Suicide remains a possibility, although relatives and friends have said they don’t believe Simpson would take her own life.

In 2007, 358 people committed suicide by drowning in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But that number made up only about 1 percent of all suicides that year.

The CDC reports that poisoning, such as a drug overdose, is the most common suicide method for women.

Speaking to reporters last month outside the restaurant where she was last seen, Simpson’s ex-husband and longtime friend Mike Stephens said her family was glad to finally have some closure.

“But that's just the first piece of the puzzle,” he said.

--Meghan Cooke

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Prosecutor returns to Gastonia to try murder case

Bill Stetzer

Bill Stetzer left the DA’s office in Gaston County in December to head the homicide team in Mecklenburg County.

But the 42-year-old veteran homicide prosecutor had some unfinished business in Gaston County – the prosecution of the man accused of murdering 20-year-old UNC Charlotte student Irina “Ira” Yarmolenko in 2008.

Stetzer, pictured above, returned to Gaston County this week to join Assistant District Attorney Stephanie Hamlin in handling the murder trial of Mark Bradley Carver.

“I worked two years on the case,” Stetzer told the Observer. “I established a relationship with the victim’s family. I didn’t think it was appropriate to walk out on the family or my co-counsel.”

Yarmolenko’s body was found beside her car on the banks of the Catawba River in Mount Holly, where authorities say she had gone to take photographs.

A bungee cord, ribbon and drawstring were around her neck. The autopsy concluded that asphyxia was the cause of death.

Carver and his cousin, Neal Leon Cassada Jr., were charged with killing Yarmolenko. Cassada died in October of apparent natural causes.

Prosecutors on Tuesday began presenting their evidence against Carver. The trial is expected to last less than two weeks.

Carver, 42, of Gastonia, faces life in prison if convicted of first-degree murder. Gary L. Wright

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Homicide Day update: debating death

Prosecutors announced Thursday they will not seek the death penalty against brothers Aaron and Akeem Ashford. The brothers are accused of shooting a mother of six outside the north Charlotte strip club where she worked.

Four other defendants, prosecutors said, will also not be tried for their lives. The defendants are: Shea Cook, Willie Lennon, Zachary Rogers, and Jonathan Smith.

The murder case against Davon Landell Thomas, scheduled to enter a plea of guilty or not guilty on Thursday, was postponed. Thomas is accused of killing his girlfriend, Tigist Yemane.

– Gary L. Wright

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Homicide Day: Weighty day in court

Thursday is homicide day in Mecklenburg County, when the court system deals with some of its weightiest cases -- defendants who have been charged with murder.

The proceedings are held once a month in an administrative courtroom and don't include any murder trials that might be going on down the hallway at the Mecklenburg County courthouse.

Up first, usually, prosecutors announce which defendants they'll seek the death penalty against. They generally don't elect to put the defendants on trial for their lives.

Some defendants are scheduled to enter either guilty or not guilty pleas. Prosecutors often don't know how the defendants will plead until they arrive at court. If the defendant pleads guilty, he's usually sentenced that same day.

Here are some of the cases in court Thursday:

Akeem and Aaron Ashford: The brothers are accused of shooting a mother of six outside the northern Charlotte strip club where she worked. Prosecutors are expected to announce whether they'll seek the death penalty against the Ashfords.

Davon Landell Thomas: He is scheduled to enter a plea of guilty or not guilty. He's accused of killing his girlfriend, Tigist Yemane. Yemane was an Ethiopian immigrant who came to the United States for a heart operation that saved her life.

Fisgerald Kilgo: Kilgo is scheduled to enter a plea of guilty or not guilty in the killing of Drew McDonald Thompson, who was shot in the parking lot of the Hilton Garden Inn on Statesville Road. Police believe the shooting was drug-related. Thompson's killing was one of five homicides police investigated during six days in the Spring of 2009.

Most of the proceedings are open to the public, and take place in courtroom 5350 starting at 9:30 a.m. -- Cleve R. Wootson Jr. and Gary L. Wright