In the October 7, 2009 issue of the News & Observer, columnist Ruth Sheehan falls short in her column titled “Gell gets cash, no apology.” She deserves kudos for accurately placing blame for the Gell fiasco on the prosecutors, David Hoke and Debra Graves. As the lead investigator, Dwight Ransome appears to have had some culpability in the legal events which ended up costing taxpayers $3.9 million to settle with Gell (not counting the $700,000 plus spent defending against the suit). However, there is one name which is conspicuous in its absence from the column… Attorney General Roy Cooper, the self-appointed adjudicator.
In the Joseph Neff article on Gell in the Friday, October 2, 2009 issue, is the following passage about the attorney general, “Cooper declined to say whether he thought Gell is innocent of Jenkins’ murder.” According to seventeen independent eyewitnesses, the murder victim Jenkins was seen alive after Gell had been jailed on auto theft charges. Evidently Cooper and his staff believed Gell was guilty because they took the time, effort, and state resources to re-try the Gell in light of the exculpatory evidence. To its credit, the jury would not dismiss logic, and they immediately found Mr. Gell not guilty of the murder charge (for which he had been wrongfully incarcerated for nine years).
Further in the article Attorney General Roy Cooper is quoted, “… In the Gell case, the prosecutors relied on two eyewitnesses, and medical and scientific evidence.” However earlier in the article, the two eyewitnesses are described as “drug-abusing 15-year old girls whose stories changed every time they were interviewed or testified.” The article never explained the specifics of the “medical and scientific evidence” the prosecutors relied on. What is evident is that Attorney General Cooper and his staff discounted the eyewitness accounts of seventeen (17) independent individuals who provided exculpatory evidence which indicated Alan Gell’s innocence in the murder of Jenkins.
Taking the aforementioned into account, how can anyone give credence to the attorney general’s April 2007 proclamation that the three defendants in the Duke Lacrosse case were innocent? In light of the fact that: 1) the Duke Lacrosse team had been previously warned about its raucous parties: 2) that on the night of March 13, 2006 there had been accounts of under-aged drinking at the Spring Break alcoholic party hosted by the Duke Lacrosse team; 3) two strippers were hired under false pretenses; 4) the partygoers had hurled vulgar and derogatory comments to the strippers shortly after they began to perform (which the Attorney General’s Office referred to as “sexual banter”); 5) racial epithets were shouted at the two African American performers when they left; and 6) that DNA from one of the accuser’s false fingernails was linked to one of the suspects she had earlier identified – David Evans, it does not appear to be an absolute certainty, to a person of reason, that no crime took place that night, as Mr. Cooper would lead the public to believe by his statement, “There was no crime committed...”
A profound problem illuminated by the intractable stance taken by the Attorney General’s Office with respect to Gell’s innocence or guilt, is that the Attorney General’s Office, like the North Carolina State Bar, and other state agencies are extremely reluctant to admit mistakes and wrongdoing. The Gell case is a prime example which shows that undeniable and irrefutable evidence is likely to be dismissed by the state in order to avoid the admission of wrongdoing. Another instance of the state ignoring reality is the incident in which head trauma to a solitary confinement inmate, Timothy Helms, left him a quadriplegic. The state denied any involvement in the incident in which Mr. Helms sustained two skull fractures, out of sight of security cameras in the maximum security facility. Alvin Keller, Secretary of the Department of Corrections, theorized that Mr. Helms might have received the injuries possibly due to a fall in which he may have struck his head on the concrete floor. Mr. Helms, however, gives a more believable account – the corrections officers picked him up and repeatedly rammed his head into the concrete wall.
The denial of reality and accountability by the state officials is what makes the goal of the unilateral and unconditional reinstatement of Mr. Nifong’s law license such a daunting challenge. But it is a challenge that is surmountable. Informing and educating the public plays an important role in achieving equal justice for Mr. Nifong and for all North Carolinians. Ms. Sheehan’s column in today’s paper was helpful in enlightening the lay public on justice issues, but it could have gone much further.