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Wednesday, 08 October 2014 13:50

District attorney candidate accused of mishandling extradition order

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A Tennessee man in a wheelchair accused of helping bury a dead body in a barrel has emerged as an unusual focal point in the hotly contested race for district attorney in the seven western counties.

To be clear, Stevie Franklin wasn’t in a wheelchair at the time of the alleged body burying. His spinal injury came later, after he tumbled off a porch roof in a fight.

But five years ago, when Franklin’s friends asked for help getting rid of a dead body — a murder allegedly stemming from a love triangle altercation in Graham County — he let them bury it on his property in Tennessee, according to the original police charges and court testimony against him.

Franklin ended up with charges in Graham County for accessory to murder, since that’s where the murder occurred. But he ended up with charges in Tennessee also, since that’s where the body was ultimately buried — stuffed in a barrel.

Along the way, Assistant District Attorney Jim Moore was entrusted with an extradition order for Franklin to be handed off to Tennessee when his case here concluded, but Moore forgot about it and left it in his car for seven weeks.

Moore’s opponent, Ashley Welch, says the incident is relevant to the campaign and has asserted that Moore owes voters an explanation for what she considers a breech of duties. Moore claims the mishap is a red herring and is merely being exploited as negative campaign fodder.

 

How it went down

The murder of Shannon Sawyer in Graham County dates back to 2009. His body wasn’t found until two years later, somewhat by happenstance when a man picked up on unrelated federal charges blabbed about knowing where a body was buried, presumably in hopes of getting lighter treatment.  

Regardless, it was 2011 before two primary suspects were finally charged with the first-degree murder of Sawyer — namely Sawyer’s ex-girlfriend and mother of his baby, and the man his ex-girlfriend was living with at the time. 

It took another three years to bring the first of the two suspects to trial, which finally came to court this March. All the while, Franklin was in jail awaiting his own accessory to murder charges, which were on hold pending the outcome of the primary murder trial. 

On the eve of the murder trial, the state of Tennessee put in an extradition order for Franklin, asking North Carolina to turn him over when it was done with him.

What happened next has become a source of debate in the district attorney’s race.

The extradition order — known as a governor’s warrant — was sent to the Swain County jail in early February, because that’s where Franklin was being held at one point. But he’d since been moved to the Clay County jail, and so the warrant actually needed to go there.

Enter Assistant District Attorney Jim Moore. Moore offered to take the extradition order to Clay County to save the Swain sheriff a trip.

Moore was one of two prosecutors on deck to try the murder suspect in Graham, and knew of Franklin since he was an accessory to the case Moore was about to try.

But, Moore never made it over to Clay County that week, or the next, or the next. So the warrant sat in his car. And sat. It sat in his car all the way through the murder trial, in fact.

The case ultimately went poorly for the prosecutors and the jury found the first of the two suspects being tried for Sawyer’s murder not guilty.

That begged the question: what about Franklin? He was an accessory to murder for helping a friend bury a body, but that friend was just found not guilty. Meanwhile, Franklin was confined to a wheelchair, thus not a high flight risk.

Franklin’s defense attorney, Melissa Jackson, had tried to get his $250,000 bond lowered several times over the previous three years, hoping to let Franklin await trial back home in Tennessee with his family instead of the Clay and Swain jails. As a side note, Franklin’s medical care in jail due to his condition was costing local taxpayers a pile of money — $75,000 over the three-year period, paid for by Graham County residents since that’s where the charges stemmed.

After the jury came back with a not guilty verdict on the first murder suspect, Jackson made a renewed appeal to the presiding Superior Court Judge Brad Letts to drop Franklin’s bond.

Letts was inclined to do so, but Moore argued against it. Although one of the two murder suspects had been found not guilty, the second murder suspect — the girlfriend in the love triangle — hadn’t come to trial yet. Franklin could still be guilty of helping her get rid of the body, so it was premature to let him out on bond yet, Moore believed.

 

Confusion abounds

Letts ultimately sided with the defense attorney and was willing to let Franklin return home for the time being.

And that’s when Moore suddenly remembered the extradition order from Tennessee, and questioned whether Letts should indeed let Franklin go since Tennessee had issued a governor’s warrant for him.

“I just remembered this,” Moore said in court, according to the transcript. “There is a governor’s warrant that has been issued for Mr. Franklin.”

The next few minutes were marked by confusion, according to the transcript. Jackson, the defense attorney, was flummoxed how there could be an extradition order against her client she didn’t know about. Judge Letts was also confused about how a warrant could be floating around that hadn’t been filed with the court. 

“I haven’t seen anything,” Jackson said.

“I haven’t seen anything either,” Letts said.

“I do have it in my car unfortunately,” Moore said.

When Moore returned several minutes later with the warrant, confusion again beset the courtroom when the other parties realized it wasn’t a fresh warrant but was seven weeks old.

“Hmm … it’s almost two months old,” Letts said, inspecting the warrant Moore had just retrieved from his car.

“I just don’t understand why this governor’s warrant has been riding around in a vehicle and hasn’t been filed,” Jackson said in court. “It’s not as though they haven’t known where he is.”

Confusion raged on as the judge, Moore and the defense attorney debated whether the warrant had expired or was still valid, and if so, what do they do with it now?

Letts was perturbed.

“It is with great sadness I must also include in the record, I find it exceedingly troubling that this documentation was held by the assistant district attorney in his automobile since Feb. 10. It was only brought to my attention after I had lowered the bond of the defendant,” Letts said, according to the transcript from the April 3 proceedings. “I’m going to take a look into this.”

The N.C. Bar Association will neither confirm nor deny whether a complaint has been filed or whether an ethics investigation has been initiated against any practicing attorney in the state.

Letts declined to comment for this article.

Jackson, Franklin’s defense attorney, said she had been contacted by the state bar recently about the circumstances surrounding the bond motion for her client, Stevie Franklin, but wouldn’t elaborate.

 

Campaign fodder

The warrant snafu has hobbled Moore as he heads into the final weeks of his campaign.

Moore has accused Welch of grandstanding over the issue. 

The court snafu over the extradition order happened in April. Why is it being fed to the media now, Moore asked? 

“It makes you wonder if it is not brought up for political reasons,” Moore said.

SEE ALSO: DA candidates spar over work, family and gender

Although an article on Moore’s misstep with the warrant appeared in The Asheville Citizen-Times two months ago and has been making its rounds through the attorney circles since May, it finally landed on the public stage — quite literally — when Welch made reference to it during a candidate forum last Sunday.

“I don’t have a judge that is so upset with me right now that I am not allowed in their courtroom,” Welch said in her closing remarks at the forum. “These are things you need to know about.”

Welch was referring to Letts, who currently won’t preside over Moore’s cases due to the conflict over the warrant snafu.

Welch brought it up during her closing remarks, and she was the last one to speak — Moore had gone first  — so there was no chance for Moore to offer a rebuttal or clarification. That’s something Moore takes issue with and that he sees as intentional.

Moore says Welch’s comment at the forum was misleading as well. Welch insinuated that Moore has been banned by a judge. But Moore said it is more benign than that.

“I haven’t been banned from the courtroom. The judge has recused himself due to a conflict that is temporary in nature,” Moore said.

 

Turn for the worse

For months, the legal community throughout the seven western counties has been buzzing over the warrant mishap and the open admonishment in court by Judge Letts.

But the biggest topic feeding the rumor mill: postulation over how could it have happened in the first place.

Did Moore really forget he had the warrant outside in his car until the last minute, despite seeing Franklin in a wheelchair in the audience every day of the murder trial? Or did Moore withhold it intentionally, as some sort of legal strategy to one-up Judge Letts if Letts seemed inclined to let Franklin go without bond? 

The murder case was fraught with problems, including the shifting testimony of the key witness, who happened to be the ex-girlfriend also charged with first-degree murder but who claimed her live-in boyfriend, not her, pulled the trigger, according to testimony.

Given the spotty evidence and weak witness testimony, a jury conviction wasn’t a shoe-in, and if the trial ended with a not guilty verdict, it wasn’t a stretch to foresee Franklin being let out.

Until now, Moore had declined to comment or respond to media questions about the governor’s warrant snafu. Moore maintained that he wouldn’t comment because it involved an ongoing case — and further insinuated Welch shouldn’t be commenting either.

“What she brought up is about a case that is related to a pending case in Graham County and as long as it is a pending case we should not be commenting about it. It is improper for me or anybody in this office to comment about issues involving that case,” Moore said in an interview last week.

However, the charges against Franklin as an accessory to murder have long since been dropped, so technically, there’s not a pending case at stake directly tied to the extradition order snafu.

“It is hiding behind something that doesn’t really exist,” Welch said.

Welch said Moore owes the public an explanation.

“The role of the DA is incredibly important and it is a very powerful position. The public needs to know about the actions of people seeking office. This is an office where the public is putting an enormous amount of trust in you,” Welch said. “You are asking the public to put faith and confidence in you and should at that point be an open book.”

Moore pointed out there are still charges pending against a second suspect for the murder, and thus the extradition order against Franklin is tangentially related — at least enough to keep him from commenting.

But Moore this week decided since the issue was already being openly reported in the media, he may as well comment after all.

“When someone continues to talk to the media about a case in a way that is misleading, we have what is called the right to respond,” Moore said. “Because my opponent continues to bring this up about the governor’s warrant I have the right to set the record straight about this issue.”

And Moore answered the question of the hour: he said he genuinely forgot the paperwork in his care, and he did not intentionally hold it back as a last-ditch legal strategy.

“I must admit I did not remember I had it,” Moore said. 

Besides, it simply doesn’t make sense as a legal maneuver. “I would have had no reason to hold on to a governor’s warrant. I gained no advantage by doing that,” Moore said.

“Whether the warrant was served two months or two minutes before the bond hearing” had no bearing on the outcome, Moore said.

Moore said the notion that he purposely withheld the warrant as an 11th-hour ace-in-the-hole just doesn’t add up.

“I had no idea or no thought Judge Letts would unsecure a bond for someone charged with accessory after the fact for murder,” Moore said.

 

‘Trying to be helpful’

To the lay person, the misplaced governor’s warrant sounds like an honest mistake. But the whole scenario is fraught with abnormalities and did not follow normal protocol for how warrants are legally processed, Welch said.

Welch said it was highly unusual for Moore to take the extradition order into his possession in the first place. They go to the clerk of court or the law enforcement agency in the county.

“The only time I have physically laid hands on a governor’s warrant is in open court. It is a formal request from another state to have somebody extradited to their state to face charges. It is not the role of the DA attorney to serve arrest warrants,” Welch said.

Moore disagreed. When the warrant was initially shipped to Swain, but actually needed to go to Clay, it made sense for him to take it that way during his usual rounds through the counties.

“I always try to be helpful,” Moore said.

But with a murder trial around the corner, he never made it to Clay.

“The difference this time is I was preparing for a murder case, and then in the murder case and trying it, and didn’t make it to Clay County with the warrant,” Moore said. 

Welch said that’s not OK.

“People are human and everyone makes mistakes. The problem is prosecutors are held to a higher standard,” Welch said. “We don’t get to make mistakes. There’s a difference between minor mistakes and something like this, which is big.”

Moore says it wasn’t a big mistake, however, and points out that ultimately it had no bearing on the outcome.

“I didn’t do anything that caused a failure of justice. I presented the governor’s warrant to the court when he was still in custody and when it was still a valid order,” Moore said.

Welch again disagreed.

“You have a right to be served with this governor’s warrant. You have a right to be advised this other state wants you. You have all these due process rights.”

For the record, the accessory to murder charges against Franklin were dropped two weeks after the not guilty verdict in the primary murder trial in April. While there was court testimony during the trial claiming Franklin helped bury the body, according to the transcript, proving it to a jury would be another matter.

“We reviewed the evidence presented during the trial and decided there was insufficient evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he was guilty of the crime he was charged with,” Moore said. 

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