Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Charlotte (NC) News & Observer Editorial

The following editorial was published in the Charlotte (NC) News & Observer on October 6, 2009.

Not pretty

A $3.9 million settlement by the SBI and its insurance companies may offer lifetime security for Alan Gell, a Bertie County man (he's now 35) who was charged with murder in 1995, sentenced to death, and then acquitted in a new trial in 2004. But the Gell case itself cast disturbing clouds over a justice system that managed to put Gell's life in jeopardy because of what appears to be seriously flawed investigative work on the part of the State Bureau of Investigation and prosecutors too eager to obtain a conviction.

Those prosecutors, David Hoke and Debra Graves of the state Attorney General's Office, were reprimanded by the State Bar for withholding evidence and not reading their files. A suit by Gell against the prosecutors was dismissed because they enjoyed absolute immunity under the law.

SBI investigator Dwight Ransome, however, was seen by his attorney to be at risk in a suit, and so a settlement was made.

The News & Observer's Joseph Neff, whose 2002 series, "Time of Death," on the murder of retired truck driver Allen Ray Jenkins and Gell's wrongful conviction in that murder helped to bring about the new trial, reported last week on the settlement and then on Ransome's conduct of the investigation. It was not a pretty picture.

Ransome, who joined the SBI in 1983, has conducted more than 50 murder investigations, including the Jenkins case. The victim, a former truck driver known for wild parties and trading drugs for sex, was killed in April of 1995 in Aulander, a Bertie town in northeastern North Carolina.

Ransome pegged Gell for the crime based on what two teenage girls said at the time. The testimony of one of them was the only evidence that supposedly tied Gell to the murder.

What didn't tie him to the slaying were statements from 17 other witnesses who said they had seen Jenkins alive after the date Gell was alleged to have killed him. That was important, because Gell was either in jail or out of state on the days these witnesses said they'd seen Jenkins. Despite those statements, Ransome, who is still with the SBI but no longer conducting investigations, pressed on. Gell was tried and convicted.

The investigation was sloppy by a veteran SBI agent, and that's disturbing. Prosecutors did not cover themselves in glory, and that's equally disturbing. But most disturbing of all, in terms of seriously calling into question the fairness of the justice system, is that Alan Gell might have been put to death by the state. (He's now in prison serving time for having sex with a 15-year-old girlfriend.)

The way this case was handled was disgraceful, but what might have been a grave outcome amplifies the magnitude of mistakes made and frankly demands a vast review of other investigations in which Ransome might have been involved.

Alan Gell might have been a troubled young man, but he didn't deserve to die for a crime for which all sorts of doubts as to his guilt were in play. The district attorney of Bertie County has since said he probably would not have ever charged Gell if he'd known about all the evidence in his favor.

For state officials, including Attorney General Roy Cooper, the financial settlement should not be the end of this. Not if he and others involved in the case, and in other cases ongoing all over the state, wish to restore confidence in the system and their own credibility.

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